Sex Organ Reversal Found In Cave Dwelling Insects With Penises In Females, Vaginas In Males

By Shweta Iyer on April 17, 2014 2:15 PM EDT

They are probably the luckiest females on Earth. They are well taken care of by the males so that they can reproduce at a high rate and they get to have sex--with penises. According to a new research conducted by an international team of scientists, a new species of insects discovered in the caves of Brazil, classified as genus Neotrogla, are the first known examples of animals with sex-reversed genetalia. A report on this finding has been published in the Cell Press journal Current Biology on April 17, according to a press release Wednesday..

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Animals have to adapt to their changing environment in various ways. And sometimes this adaptation involves changing their most intrinsic nature-their sex. According to Kazunori Yoshizawa from Hokkaido University in Japan, one of the researchers, sex-role reversal is seen in several different animals but "Neotrogla is the only example in which the intromittent organ is also reversed."

Scientists observed an extended penis-like organ in female insects of four distinct species of the genus Neotrogla. The females insert this into a small vagina-like opening seen in the male of the species, during copulation, which lasts for an unbelievable 40 to 70 hours. During copulation the male insects not only provide sperm but also nutrition through their semen. This allows the females to mate at a higher rate.

This shows the female penis of N. aurora.
This shows the female penis of N. aurora.

The scientists believe that the sex-reversal may be an evolutionary coping mechanism developed over time to survive the harsh and often resource-deficient environment of the caves.The new species was discovered by Rodrigo Ferreira from the Federal University of Lavras in Brazil, who was studying the genus Neotrogla. He then sent the specimens to insect specialist Charles Lienhard in Geneva, who recognized them as a new genus and also discovered the penises on the females'.

When Yoshizawa joined the team, they decided to further understand the role of the penis like structures in mating and observed that in all four species, the females inserted the penis-like structure called gynosome into the male. Once inside a male, the membranous part of the female gynosome inflates and numerous spines internally anchor the two insects together. The penis-like structure is used to take sperm and nourishment from the males. The scientists came to the conclusion that this physical bond between the male and the female is very strong because when they tried to separate the two, the male's abdomen was ripped from the thorax but the female's penis was still attached to its body.

The scientists are attempting to aid the insects' growth in the laboratory so that they can understand more about its behavior and physiology. Their study will also shed new light on sex-reversal, selection, and dominance. "It will be important to unveil why, among many sex-role reversed animals, only Neotrogla evolved the elaborated female penis," says Yoshitaka Kamimura from Keio University in Japan.

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