In 2002, I found it necessary to post to the RPG.net thread: Do dragons have penises? Here are the two mini-essays which I provided, very slightly corrected for typos and occasional word choice. The first answers the thread question, and the second concerns another, equally trenchant question of what the hell a shambling mound might be, anyway.
DO DRAGONS HAVE PENISES?
The living amniotic vertebrates include: turtles, mammals, squamates (snakes and lizards), crocodiles, and birds. Just where dragons fit in with this is gonna prompt spit-spraying debate, but they definitely belong with this chunk o’creatures rather than any others. So let’s lift the hind end and look at the pee-pee area.
The default amniotic vertebrate possesses a cloaca, a common opening for the anal and urinary orifices. The male has a penis tucked against the interior ventral wall of the cloaca, which is extruded at times of need. The female’s vaginal orifice opens into the cloaca as well.
This arrangement is observed in turtles, some birds, some mammals, and crocodiles. Here are the funny changes in the rest of’em.
1) Most mammals have separated Ye Olde Anus from Mr./Ms. Genitals + Ye Olde Urethra. Look down if you’re not sure what I mean … all these parts are NOT in a little tucked-away orifice all together, right? If they are, I want to meet you – you’re worth a publication to me.
2) Most male birds have gone and done something else: Mr. Penis has … um, gone away. (Horrors!) How do they fuck, then? They butt up (heh) their two cloacae, in something called a “cloacal kiss” (make loud sucking smooch noise), and presently the male squirts semen across to the female. Yeah, copulation without a penis. The wonders of nature.
3) Squamates (lizards and snakes) are just tres weird, and it’s not just because I’m a mammal. (Looks down, checks – nods.) OK, first, the males have no penis; it’s gone, just like in the birds. But then! Oooh, oooh, the males have two totally separate organs growing out of the skin right about where their hipbones would be (actually, well, snakes do … but never mind, too much detail hurts the mind). These are called hemipenes (each is a hemipenis; did you know the plural of “penis” is “penes”?). When snakes or lizards get it on, the male uses one of them.
So! What’s up with the dragon? If it’s a squamate (snake or lizard), then it’s hemipenes time. If it’s a crocodile, then see the default amniotic vertebrate section. And if it’s a bird/dinosaur deal, then that’s probably the case as well, unless it’s a derived bird in which case it’s the Big Chop. (Oh yeah … highly sophisticated observations by stern-faced paleontologists have revealed that Tyrannosaurus rex did indeed have the muscle attachments associated with twitching one’s penis, so we figure these dinos, anyway, had the croc/basic bird/basic amniote arrangement.)
But! The spunky grad student in the back will pipe up and remind us all that any distinctive creature may well possess … wait for it … autapomorphic features, which is a fancy way of saying that dragons, like derived mammals or squamates or any of the #1-3 weirdies up there, might display some *unique* variant on the basic amniote arrangement, not seen anywhere else! Hmmm, says the prof, that is so, as I was about to say.
Gaming and the doctorate, mated (if you will) at last. My life is complete.
THE SHAMBLING MOUND
All right, get this – most of your body’s cells have 46 chromosomes, or rather, 23 pairs, right? Each pair features the same genes up and down each of the two chromosomes, but the instructions for a given gene can be different between the two. That’s where all that big-A, little-a talk from bio class comes from; you have two versions of the same gene, not necessarily identical, for all approximately-30,000 genes.
Well, now consider all the gametes (sperm or ova) that you produce during your life. Or hell, if you’re male, in a month. Quite a bucketful, actually. Ewww! Women have a bunch too, but they made them while they were fetuses and just finish and release’em periodically. That, by the way, is not a pun; it’s the entirely literal origin of the familiar term. (Ova are released, i.e., made available, by women at the midpoint of time between two menstruations. This is a public service announcement.)
Anyway, back to those gametes – thing is, each one is a cell, mm’kay, but it has only one chromosome per pair – which is to say, 23 total. But that means it still has all the genes – just one instruction each instead of two. So when a mommy and a daddy love one another very very much, and then fuck a lot, sooner or later an ovum gets the chromosomes of a sperm put into it … and the resulting cell has 23 full pairs again. Each chromosome pair now has one chromosome from dad and one from mom, and thus each gene now has one instruction from mom and one from dad (with a couple of not-important-now exceptions). We can all thank this process for the presence of so many wonderful people posting every day on RPG.net, for instance.
The two-chromosome-per-pair cells, like your muscles and eyes and brain and basically “you” cells, are called diploid. The one-chromosome-per-pair cells contained in the last cumshot you male readers did, or observed in person, or watched online (you pervert), are called haploid. We never see ova, so I can’t say anything similarly rude to the women readers and am thus forced to be a sexist.
Where’s the shambling mound in all this? Well, see, it’s a mass of aggressive plant tissue, right? A sort of person-shaped mass of plant? That raises many questions.
You see, if it’s a fairly derived plant or set of plants, then it’s a lot like animals: diploid body cells which are all highly differentiated across the critter’s anatomy, with haploid sex cells which don’t do much except combine with other sex cells once in a while. That’s what all that stuff on your car is; pollen is plant sperm, and that’s not a joke or metaphor or anything. It is. Those plants have ova too.
But lots of other, more ancestral-type plants have a different system, a scary one. See, in mosses and ferns and such, the little sex cells don’t hook up and become the first cell of a new offspring. No indeed. Instead, they multiply and make a body of their own. Yup – just as if one little sperm were to undergo tons of cell multiplication and development to become a little guy, who put on a little suit and went to his little job every day. Why not, after all? It has all the genes it needs, the same number as its diploid parent, with one sufficient instruction each.
Sooner or later one of these critters finds another one, and they do the nasties, and each one gives out a single haploid cell to combine with the other’s, and that’s how the diploid version of the plant appears again. Effectively, you see two different plants: the diploid one who occasionally squirts out haploid cells on its lonesome, and the haploid one who develops into its own “adult” and then seeks another such haploid adult. It’s called “alternation of generations,” in yet another biological aphorism that will never be a bumper sticker.
To analogize to humans again, what you and I think of as human adults would never get to fuck. Only our little sperm-guys and ova-girls would seek one another out and do it (and do it again! yes! oh yes!). Sorry. Got distracted.
Also, depending on the plant, these little guys can have distinctive anatomies that produce both sorts of sex cells (small = pollen, big = ova); the anatomies are called the antheridium if male, and the archegonium if female. Or in others, a given haploid critter can be only one or the other.
That’s what I’m talking about … see, the particular monster in question might be a big ol’ developed haploid critter, with an archegonium, specifically its whole mossy front area. It’s looking for its male equivalent. It’s a shambling mound.
I mean, the manual says it’s some kind of carnivorous plant, right? Bullllll shit! There ain’t nothing in there about shambling mounds eating anyone. They club their victims and grab’em, clutching them close. The thing to do, if you’re grabbed and if you’re male, is to provide haploid cells into that central torso mass as fast as you can, hoping to distract it with what it wants, and hoping that human sperm will do that job sufficiently for you to get away.
The discussion picked up again in November 2010, in Dragon penis / Shambling mound.