Why do these female cave insects have spiky penises?

The discovery of a unique valve, which allows these female insects to store two batches of semen at once, hints at why they evolved such unusual genitalia.

A female cave insect (left) mounts a male (right). Image credit: Yoshizawa et al. (CC BY 4.0)

In dry caves of southeastern Brazil, live a group of insects named Neotrogla that are perhaps best known because the egg-producing females have penises while the sperm-producing males have vaginas. The sex roles of these Brazilian cave insects are also reversed: females compete over the males, who in turn are selective of their female partners. This sex role reversal likely evolved within Neotrogla because the males’ semen represents a rich and reliable source of energy within a nutrient-poor cave environment. When females are not using semen to fertilize their eggs, they consume it. Yet, while other animals show sex role reversal, Neotrogla species alone have reversed sexual organs.

Neotrogla penises are spiky and may have evolved so that females can anchor themselves to males and then mate for prolonged periods. This would allow the females to stock up on the nutritious semen. Compared to their closest relatives, Neotrogla species can hold twice as much semen within their sperm storage organs. Scientists have speculated that a valve-like structure within this organ enables this extra storage by allowing the female to redirect semen into two separate chambers. But the organ’s small size has made it difficult to determine its inner workings, and scientists have yet to discover a switching valve that serves such a purpose within the animal kingdom.

Yoshizawa et al. examined three Neotrogla species using advanced imaging technology and detected the first example of a biological switching valve. Neotrogla females can control this valve, switching the flow of semen between two slots. In this way, females can store two batches of semen at once. Seemingly exploiting this adaptation, the females’ spiky penises help them restrain males until they have received multiple semen injections. Yoshizawa et al. therefore suggest the emergence of this valve within the sperm storage organ may have promoted the evolution of the female penis.

Along with giving insight into the lives of cave insects, these findings are of interest to engineers, who face challenges when constructing valves on a microscopic scale. The unique switching valve of female Neotrogla may one day inspire new man-made machinery that could advance a range of industries.