Development of hemipenes in the ball python snake Python regius

Sex Dev. 2015;9(1):6-20. doi: 10.1159/000363758. Epub 2014 Jun 20.


Within amniotes, external copulatory organs have undergone extensive morphological diversification. One of the most extreme examples is squamate (lizards and snakes) hemipenes, which are paired copulatory organs that extend from the lateral margins of the cloaca. Here, we describe the development of hemipenes in a basal snake, the ball python (Python regius). Snake hemipenes arise as a pair of lateral swellings on either side of the caudal part of the cloaca, and these paired outgrowths persist to form the left and right hemipenes. In non-squamate amniotes, external genitalia form from paired swellings that arise on the anterior side of the cloaca, which then fuse medially to form a single genital tubercle, the anlagen of the penis or clitoris. Whereas in non-squamate amniotes, Sonic hedgehog (Shh)-expressing cells of the cloacal endoderm form the urethral or sulcus epithelium and are required for phallus outgrowth, the hemipenes of squamates lack an endodermal contribution, and the sulcus does not express Shh. Thus, snake hemipenes differ from the genital tubercles of non-squamate amniotes both in their embryonic origins and in at least part of patterning mechanisms, which raises the possibility that hemipenes may not be direct homologs of the unpaired amniote penis. Nonetheless, we find that some developmental genes show similar expression patterns in snake hemipenes buds and non-squamate genital tubercles, suggesting that homologous developmental mechanisms are involved in aspects of external genital development across amniotes, even when these structures may have different developmental origins and may have arisen independently during evolution.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biological Evolution
  • Boidae / embryology*
  • Cloaca / embryology
  • Cloaca / metabolism
  • Cloning, Molecular
  • Female
  • Gene Expression
  • Gene Expression Regulation, Developmental
  • Genitalia / embryology*
  • Genitalia / ultrastructure
  • Hedgehog Proteins / genetics
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Mice
  • Organogenesis
  • Sexual Maturation / genetics
  • Urethra


  • Hedgehog Proteins