The ocean is full of mystery. It is also full of penises. And biologists have taken note. Some marine animals look especially phallic — to the point that no one’s even trying to hide the truth behind a veil of innuendo. By that I mean there are literally sea creatures whose scientific names have the word “penis” in them.
So, while you may have been surprised when a recent animal, the peanut worm or Sipuncula, made internet rounds, it didn’t much faze biologists. We asked a few researchers from Chicago’s Field Museum to put together a list of the most dick-like animals in the ocean, and they were game.
“It shows people that there’s absolutely crazy biodiversity about there,” ichthyologist Caleb McMahan told Gizmodo. “You learn something about it when you read [the story about] it.” So, pointing out the phallic nature of marine life can actually be educational.
Worms named after the Roman god with the giant erection
Image: Shunkina Ksenia/Wikimedia Commons
Priapulida is a whole phylum, the second largest grouping of species after kingdom, of dick-like animals. Its moniker should give it away — it’s named after the Greek god Priapus, known for his giant, erect wiener. That’s also where priapism, a state of constant erection, gets its name. So clearly whoever named this entire group of species had penises on their mind.
“The way they live doesn’t really require major appendages like legs and stuff like that,” Gerber told Gizmodo. “This suits them.”
That giant, horrible dick clam
Image: The Evergreen State College - The Evergreen State College photo archives/Wikimedia Commons
It’s sort of a truth universally acknowledged that the giant geoduck clam looks like a penis — check out the articles from Serious Eats and Eater on how to prepare the clam. Gerber didn’t have to explain much. “It has the shape of a penis,” he said. “Mind you, an uncircumcised one, clearly.”
But why do they look like a dong? Geoducks could be the largest burrowing clams in the world. Unlike giant clams that sit atop the sand’s surface, geoducks dig underneath the dirt. They can then use their dickish siphon to suck up water and filter it out for its plankton.
They’re a delicacy, too, and can run 20 to 30 bucks a pound, writes Eater. Chef Ethan Stowell told the food magazine: “It’s definitely unique to the Northwest [of North America], and I think we should be proud of it.... It’s a raw clam, and it’s as sweet as it gets for something that comes from the ocean.”
Also, watch this:
This especially dick-like fish
It’s not just invertebrates that take the form of the male genitalia. Thermarces cerberus is an eel-like fish that lives deep underwater near hydrothermal vents. It’s got a light, fleshy colour, similar to other organisms that live in the deep deep. “Like most of the other deep sea fishes, they’re just adapted to live down in those environments,” said McMahan. “They can handle the high temperatures of the things that come out of the hydrothermal vents.”
I asked McMahan if there was anything else especially dick-like about the fish, aside for the appearance. Not really, he said. “I asked someone what it looked like and that was the first thing that came to mind.”
The “acorn worm,” with its “acorn-shaped” gland
Image: Spengel, Johann Wilhelm/Wikimedia .Commons/Public Domain
Enteropneusta’s common name is the “acorn worm,” because, as its name implies, it has an acorn-like gland at the end. These worms also live and burrow in sediment, like other sea-worms.
But here’s the thing — in English, we call the tip of the penis the glans. In Gerber’s native German, it’s instead called the eichel, which translates literally to acorn.“It’s pretty clear this was meant,” said Gerber, “but what do I know about the psychology of people who gave these names 150-200 years ago?”
Urechis unicintus, the penis fish delicacy
Ha, you might think, this is a list of fish that look like a penis, and here you’ve presented me Trypauchen vagina, fish whose name is literally vagina! In fact, the fish, better known as the burrowing goby is as phallic looking as it gets. Vagina, in this case, is referring not to the genital, but to the Latin vagina for sheath.
The burrowing goby is another elongated, pinkish fish that burrows and lives in sandy marine environments. But were folks naming the fish aware that they’d just picked about as silly a name as it gets for a penis-like fish? “It was described in probably the early 1900s,” said McMahan. “Someone early on noticed something about this fish that warranted that name.” What they most likely noticed was its fleshy pink color.
“It’s similar to the [Thermarces cerberus],” said McMahan. “It’s really the appearance that’s penis-like.”
Image: Nithyanandan Manickam, Nature in Singapore (2011)
While not necessarily the most penis-like in appearance, Verpa penis’ name literally translates to “penis penis.” And there’s a long story behind its honourable title.
Carolus Linnaeus, the same guy who came up with the binomial nomenclature we use for species names, originally named the species Serpula penis thanks to its long tube — serpula means little snake, and penis means penis. Commonly referred to as the watering pot clam, it has a shell at the base from which the long tube grows.
However, later on a French biologist thought perhaps the animal belonged in a different genus, and that it should be the Penicillus penis — but the Penicillus name was already in use by some other mollusks. Finally, German malacologist Peter Friedrich Röding came along to set everyone straight, explained Gerber. Röding created a whole new genus especially for the penis: Verpa, the latin slang term for penis.
Biology can really be quite incredible.