This Is the Echidna Penis. I Echid You Not.Posted: February 7, 2012
The short-beaked echidna (Tachyglossus acelatus), also called the spiny anteater, is one of those bizarre half mammal half reptile Franken-animals from down under known as monotremes, an order whose more familiar representative is the duck-billed platypus.
In Greek mythology, Echidna was a half nymph half snake monstress, the mother of the fearsome Chimera, Hydra, Gorgon, and countless other creatures in the Greek pantheon. That this she-beast is the namesake of the humble and sometimes adorable short-beaked echidna may seem unfair, but this, dear reader, is only because you are unfamiliar with its great and awful penis.
I warn you: the following video is not for the faint of heart. Better persons than I have been unraveled by what are about to see, some very dear to me. But they did not understand the burden of this profession, that as penile scientists we must accept the sublime with the terrible, often at the same time. Now prepare yourself, and,
Behold, the four-headed Hydra birthed from the belly of Echidna!
So now after watching the video five or six times in a row, agape and speechless, your trembling awe finally subsiding, you may ask aloud in a quaking voice, “Why, oh God, why is it like this?” To answer this we must abandon Mythology and give ourselves over to Science.
The reason the echidna’s penis is so unusual has to do with its reptilian evolutionary heritage. Male reptiles typically have a pair of penes, known as hemipenes, only one of which is used during copulation. Additionally, some hemipenes fork at the tip, for a total of four penile prongs (see fig. 1a). Echidnas seems to have inherited precisely this style of doubly bifurcated reptile penis, but fused into a single mammal-like penile shaft (fig. 1b).
The mystery does not end here: for many years scientists were stumped by the fact that the male’s penis has four prongs but the female’s genital tract only has room for two. Then, in one of those serendipitous occurrences that drive science forward, reproductive biologist Dr. Steve Johnston from University of Queensland and his colleagues inherited an unusually gregarious echidna who had been retired from a zoo for displaying erections during public viewing sessions (New Scientist, 2007).
What Dr. Johnston discovered was that, just how reptiles only use one hemipenis at a time, male echidnas disengage one side of their penis and only use half when ejaculating (Johnston, 2007). Those of you with a discerning eye might have spotted this towards the end of the above video; see also fig. 2.
I salute you, Dr. Johnston, not only for your solving the prong puzzle, but your breezy smile here seems to indicate that you, like I, have come to peace with the burden scientists like us must endure. I hope this means that you, unlike I, can still salvage those connections you share with the people most important to you. Yes, it’s clear from that smile, you have a family that loves you and understands your passion for your work. You are the man who has it all.
ABC Science. 2000. Echidna love trains [online].
Myers, C. W. and Schargel, W.E. 2006. Morphological Extremes—Two New Snakes of the Genus Atractus from Northwestern South America. American Museum Novitates, 3532:1-1. [pdf].
New Scientist. 2007. Exhibitionist spiny anteater reveals bizarre penis [online].