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Caecilians: the Amphibian You May Never See

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An amazing creature that resembles monsters from a horror film, caecilians are unique legless amphibians that reside underground and in shallow streams, and rarely seen by humans.

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Scientific specification

  • Common Name: Caecilian
  • Kingdom: Animalia
  • Phylum: Chordata
  • Class: Amphibia
  • Order: Gymnophiona
  • Clade: Apoda
  • Scientific Name: Gymnophiona
  • Diet: Carnivore
  • Size: From 3.5 inches to nearly 5 feet

Family

  • Caeciliidae
  • Chikilidae
  • Dermophiidae
  • Herpelidae
  • Ichthyophiidae
  • Indotyphlidae
  • Rhinatrematidae
  • Scolecomorphidae
  • Siphonopidae
  • Typhlonectida

Caecilians, correctly pronounced as seh-SILL-yens, may have a worm or snake-like appearance, but these dark long, lithe fellows belong to a family of legless amphibians.

The caecilians may look like something you’ve seen before, but you may never have seen one, and may never set eyes on one. There are almost 200 species of caecilians recorded by science, ranging from the Idiocranium Russell in Cameroon that grows up to 3.5-inch-long to the Caecilia thompsoni in Colombia that grows nearly 5-foot-long.

Caecilians of all species tend to have very tiny eyes, which are assumed only to be capable of detecting differences between dark and light.

In some species of Caecilians, the eyes are fully covered by a layer of skin—an adaptation perfect for a life spent almost in the dark and entirely underground. A pair of small, chemically-sensitive tentacles on the face of the caecilians can possibly help them navigate and detect food.

While the amphibians are without arms or legs, they are skilled diggers, using their strong muscles and skull that run their body’s length to drive through mud and dirt like a piston in a car engine.

The caecilians come in a range of colors, from light or dark grays and blacks to bright blues. Some species are two-toned, with topsides of purple and pink underbellies. Some others boast many vertical stripes, like a coral snake.

The skin of caecilians is slimy and smooth, and researchers have noted that catching one can be as tricky as trying to get a firm grip on a bar of wet soap. Some caecilian species, like the Siphonops paulensis that reside in Central and South America, have natural glands in their skin that secrete dangerous toxins that have been found to damage red blood cells in some animals.

It is believed that the toxic concoctions weren’t always there, and possibly evolved to repel predators.

Habitat and behavior

Despite growing to reach gargantuan lengths, these aquatic animals are hardly spotted by people. Most species of Caecilians spend a majority of their lives hiding underground or plying the shallow waters of streams.

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Caecilians are rare but can be found in neotropical and tropical areas around the globe, from and South and Central America to Central Africa and Southeast Asia.

Noteworthy is that high up in the cloud forests of Ecuador, the giant-size caecilian called the Caecilia pachynema is only known to slither to the surface at night time and sometimes during torrential rainstorms.

Caecilians may grow to enormous sizes, but they are not dangerous to humans, although the creatures have scary mouths full of impressive, needle-like teeth. The sharp rows of fangs are designed to help the animals capture tiny prey, like earthworms, which are not chewed but swallowed whole.

They also feed on insects and other available invertebrates.

Reproduction

As amphibians, some species of caecilians are known to lay their eggs in moist soil or water, similar to salamander and frog reproduction.

Interestingly, some caecilians have evolved a unique way of caring for the younger caecilians that they hatch.

Rather than feeding their children with milk like mammals do, or catching prey and taking it back to their abode, as birds do, female caecilians of the Boulengerula taitana species of Kenya allow their babies to scrape off and eat a tiny layer of their skin.

A study that was published in Nature in 2006 reported that brooding females in this Kenyan species have thick skin that is about twice as thick as the females without young and that their skin cells may change in quality themselves to offer the young ones more fat and protein.

The young caecilians are also born fully equipped with a unique set of temporary teeth that are designed for Scraping and lifting their mother’s epidermis off her body without causing any injury to her in the process.

There are also a few species that give birth to their young lives. And in some of these species of caecilians, scientists have discovered that the young will start to feed on their mother before they are born by chewing away at the swollen lining of the mother’s oviduct.

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This is called matriphagy by scientists.

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