Hello everyone, and welcome to this week’s installment of Weird Biology! Today, we’re going to talk about the secret basement-child of the Amphibian family. Put your surprised face on and get ready to be a little uncomfortable, because it’s-
OH CAECILIAN, YOU’RE BREAKING MY HEART! YOU’RE SHAKING MY CONFIDENCE DAILYYY!
(I’ll stop, I’ll stop)
Caecilians (‘seh-SILL-yuns’) are a group of limbless top-secret wiggly-writhy-squirmy-wormy amphibians that live in tropical regions across the world. Their name is Latin for “blind ones”, which is metal as heck but I’ll get more into that later. There are nearly 200 species of Caecilians out there, but you’ll likely never see one in the wild because they’re so top secret. Need to know only, sorry. Seriously though, Caecilians are burrowers who spend their entire lives underground. In the dirt. Like worms. Whiiiich they look almost exactly like. (Unlike worms though, they don’t flop around on a sidewalk after a rainstorm only to get stomped on by rude children.)
Though many Caecilians are the size and color of your regular humble dirt worms, some species can reach almost five feet long! There’s a lot of variation between Caecilian species, though- some are worm-tiny, some are the size of garter snakes, some look like someone dropped a rogue intestine and it wandered off.
Sir, you forgot your, uhhhhhh…
They also come in a riot of colors and patterns, from pink to violent yellow stripes to blue! This is actually kind of weird, because most Caecilians don’t actually have eyeballs to see them with. (Some have recessed eyes, but they only have simple vision that can tell light from dark.) While there’s a lot of very strange variations going on in the Caecilian household, they all share the same basic body plan. (“Worm, but a vertebrate.”) Their long skinny body helps them to squirm around in the dirt! And it is all body, as most Caecilians have short or entirely absent tails. Yup. That’s all torso, baby. (Yes, there’s a butt on the end. stop asking.)
Caecilians may look like worms at first, but you only have to see one grab a frog and swallow it headfirst once to realize that HOLY CRAP, WHAT IS THAT. That’s right, Caecilians are voracious and effective predators! They may not look like much of a threat to you, but the very thought of these wiggly squirmlings gives every creature that lives underground screaming nightmares. The Caecilian, equipped with small but incredibly strong jaws lined with dozens of tiny needle teeth, thinks that this is just fine.
The Caecilian uses its sense of smell and the small sensory tentacles (Yes, tentacles. Who designed these, Lovecraft?) on their face to locate prey, which is anything smaller than them. They eat toads, frogs, moles, actual real dirt worms, and a whole smorgasbord of underground bugs. All of which are swallowed whole. But the Caecilian doesn’t worry too much about meeting a similar fate itself, (possibly at the metaphorical hands of a very large Early Bird) as many of them have toxic skin! Like a dart frog. (These guys really have all their bases covered, huh?)
Another fun fact about Caecilians is that they eat their own mothers! (But only a little bit.) Caecilians all reproduce using internal fertilization, and many of them bear live young. Like some kind of filthy mammal, or something. But since amphibians don’t produce milk, this raises the question: how is babby fed? Well, the answer is pretty disturbing, so you small children in the audience should make sure to listen EXTRA CLOSE so that you can totally gross out your friends during recess.
They eat their mom’s skin.
No seriously, the Caecilian mom feeds her children by producing an extra layer of fatty and highly-nutritious skin that replaces itself every three days on the clock. Which is good, because that’s exactly how long her sweet little Caecilian children take to nibble it off with their many sharp teeth. The babies will stay with mommy until they’re big enough to make it on their own, at which point they kick their skin-eating habits and skeedaddle. This way of life may disgust you, but you gotta admit it definitely works. While some Caecilians are in danger of extinction, many of them are doing pretty okay! That said, I don’t recommend that you go home and nibble on Mom. some things are best left to the worms.
We look like worms! But we are not! We eat skin and we think that’s great! CAECILIANS!!
1. Wilkinson M, Sherratt E, Starace F, Gower DJ, Wikimedia Commons
2. Shyamal, Wikimedia Commons
3. Wilkinson M, Sherratt E, Starace F, Gower DJ, Wikimedia Commons