Why Are These Wormy Amphibians Attacking Their Mother?

Caecilians look like worms, but they're actually amphibians. Like most other animals, they're born hungry. And they have quite possibly the grossest feeding system in the entire world.


Caecilians are popular pets for people with a high tolerance for things that look like worms roaming around their house. The limbless amphibians are, some biologists believe, part of the same subclass that gave rise to salamanders and frogs. Above, you see what looks like the gruesome death of a Boulengerula taitanus. Smaller caecilians, her own babies, are ripping pieces off of her.

Actually, the little tykes are doing- exactly what they're supposed to, and the mother is just fine. After laying her eggs, this caecilian grows a special, nutrient-rich skin. When the babies hatch, they rip the skin off of her as their first meal. The whole family naps for seven days afterwards, during which the mother grows a new skin so her offspring can do it all over again.


[Via New Scientist, Why Dogs Eat Poop.]

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Zach Miller

Caecilians are undeniably the weirdest amphibians. And the "subclass" that Esther references is Lissamphibia. Basically, the living amphibians (anurans, caudates, and caecilians). Grouping the three amphibian orders together under one banner assumes they share a common ancestor. The alternative is that frogs and salamanders are united as the only living representatives of Temnospondyli, while caecilians are the only living lepospondyls.

And this matters, phylogenetically. We like to think of amphibians as this one giant group of related organisms, but they're actually kind of a hodgepodge of animals that hadn't evolved an eggshell yet. That is, some "amphibians" are closer to amniotes than others.

In fact, since amniotes must have evolved FROM "amphibians," it means that we're ALL modified amphibians—just like we're all modified fish, since tetrapods evolved from fish.

The Lissamphibia thing is really interesting, though. I will say that all three groups are united by dental characters, and molecular evidence supports a monophyletic Lissamphibia that diverged first in the Carboniferous, and then frogs separated from salamanders in the Permian.

Fun fact! There's a reptilian version of caecilians—they're called amphisbaenians, and they are SO WEIRD.