Best described to sci-fi enthusiasts as looking like a scaled-down version of the worm monsters in Tremors, Dune and (most accurately) The Empire Strikes Back, caecilians are probably some of the strangest creatures out there. To those not versed in monster movies, caecilians are amphibians which look like worms, have no or extremely reduced eyes and come in a wide range of colours – from almost black to bright orange and purple.
These creatures spend most of their life living underground, with some species living underwater, and so are extremely difficult to study. Researchers are expected to find an average of one every 10 hours spent searching and so it is no wonder that little is known about their ecology and behaviour. Of what we do know, much is very strange indeed.
Probably most unusual is the maternal care, which sees the young grow rapidly on a diet of their mother’s skin, periodically devoured in a feeding frenzy. When mature, they wait just under the soil for a hapless victim, such as a cricket, to wander by and strike from below, death-rolling once they have caught their prey. Their bite force is unusually high due to their extremely muscular jaws which are also necessary to keep the skull and jaw rigid when using their head like a battering ram to dig. On top of all that they’re poisonous, secreting toxins from glands over their body alongside a slimy substance which helps them slip through their subterranean tunnels.
Of the 209 caecilian species, some are thought to be threatened or endangered, but so little is known about caecilian population size that we may never have the chance to learn much more. Some species could go extinct before anyone even gets around to dedicating the time to find these elusive creatures.
By Anna Davison
image source: https://adlayasanimals.wordpress.com/2014/10/12/caecilian-order-gymnophiona/