Sunday, April 03, 2005

They Are Not Worms, Snakes, Or Sicilians

Caecilians are some of the stranger and more immediately nasty-looking creatures that Ed looks after at the Zoo. Native to waterways in the Amazon basin, caecilians are amphibians that look like the offspring from a drunken one-night stand shared by a snake and an earthworm. They are a greyish tan, with no immediately discernible markings. These creatures would never do it in real life, but they look like the kind of worms that Satan would order to eat Mohammed Atta's eyes in hell for all of eternity--largeish, semi-colorless, and really frisky when excited about food.

Caecilians have very rudimentary eyesight, as it is almost superfluous in their darkened watery world. Their native waterways are so clogged with tannins and decaying biomass that any sort of underwater visibility is nearly impossible. Instead, caecilians have evolved a short tentacle that protrudes from their face and senses touch, scent and taste. This tentacle is derived from eye tissue.

Caecilians are one of they only forms of amphibian to give birth to live young. They gestate for up to seven months and emerge weighing nearly forty percent as much as their mother. According to my shaky math skills, this is the equivalent of a 120 pound woman giving birth to a 48 pound baby.

Instead of feeding from an umbilical cord, fetal caecilians simply eat the lining of their mother's uterus with tiny shovel-like teeth that rock back and forth in their sockets--so as not to slash away at the womb. The caecilian womb has evolved to tolerate this sort of dietary dilettation (or culinary curettage) and easily sloughs off into the baby's mouth and regenerates rapidly between meals.

Once caecilians grow up, they eat termites, crickets, any pretty much any form of protein-rich detritus that might grow in or fall into their habitat. Ed feeds his earthworms. Here's a picture of Ed festooning the tank with a liberal lot of earth worms:


And here are the caecilians consequently going nuts:


Here's a closeup of a caecilian eating:


Two of them got into a pretty exciting little scuffle over a worm:


Ed reached right in and broke it up, though. He said "Yeah, they can bloody each other up pretty bad when they fight like that, and you really don't want that. We used to feed them squid, but they fought too much over it, because it's tough and doesn't rip apart. Worms just rip right away when they get twisted in these critter's mouths."

I asked if they bit people, to which Ed responded, "Yeah. It's a good solid bite. It draws blood, but it's not too bad."


At 11:07 AM, Blogger weasel said...

Now I feel like I need to shower but am concerned that Caecilians will come out of the drain hole. Thanks man, now I want to go everywhere with my pants legs taped shut. These things give me the willies. Proof that if there is a creator he is not benign, he is a David Cronenberg type.

At 10:09 AM, Blogger Chris Larry said...

Nice connection and photos, ED sounds like a good source for your new career in lay-naturalist blogger, maybe he can introduce you to his warm blooded co-workers for seek peeks into other "cultures of life"

At 2:25 AM, Anonymous wizard said...

Pretty accurate information there for the Typhlonectes spp. pictured. Kudos. There are over 150 species though- most of them terrestrial. Some lay eggs as well.

At 3:06 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

actually they are beautiful. their mouths always have a smile.i had one for 2 years. after about 15 months it had a live baby. it was beautiful as well. no father of course but, still it had a baby.i could pick it up in the tank for a minute or two. their skin feels like silk and once they arent afraid of you they dont get the slime.they dont bite. they keep the tank clean. they will get out of the tank often....... so you have to watch closely. ive been trying to get a pair of them for some time now to add to the community i have now... and for population control if you can locate me one or two


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