Zoological investigations

While my long-term goal as a volunteer science writer does include developing a ravenous cult following the size of Winnipeg, I am not yet so megalomaniacal as to expect that just five articles spanning three months will have generated a base of regular readers. However, just in case any of you happen to be riding on the leading edge of my wave (so to speak), I want you to know that I really wish this article hadn’t taken so long. Pressing matters don’t you know.

So without further ado, I will now talk about caecilians because they are really cool too and they are not extinct. And unlike those lemurs we talked about last time, they are not about to become extinct either to the best of our knowledge (largely because most of them live underground and no one really knows very much about them.)

Caecilians! They, along with frogs and salamanders, are amphibians. They do not have limbs (i.e. they are legless,) they can either be aquatic or burrowing, some lay eggs but the majority are viviparous (give birth to live young,) and many exhibit parental care. Some caecilians have scales (no other living amphibians have scales, as far as the experts in the field know) and all caecilians have tentacles, which are likely an adaptation to living in low-light conditions. Some body parts that are normally associated with eyes in other vertebrates are instead associated with tentacles, and the eyes, which are only really good for differentiating between the presence and absence of light, are very reduced or even covered with thin flaps of skin. Some Caecilians even have eyes that are located on the tentacle itself! The tentacles are thought to have a chemosensory (“smelling”) function.

Roughly 75 per cent of known caecilian species give birth to fully formed young that may be between 30-60 per cent of their mother’s body length (yikes). The initial growth of the fetus is supported by a yolk, but this is used up before development has completed, meaning the remaining energy needed has to be supplied internally by the mother. Nutritious materials and secretions are scraped from the walls of the mother’s oviducts with specialized teeth. In caecilians that lay eggs, the female often broods and guards the eggs until they hatch.

If you are a geek like me and think that David Attenborough is just the cat’s meow, you may be familiar with a newish series called Life in Cold Blood. The film crew and science team were able to stick a fancy little camera into a caecilian’s burrow and made a really neat discovery, which I will tell you about. Oviparous (egg-laying) caecilians must provide food for their under-developed young once they hatch and the spy camera found that mother caecilians begin to slough off a specialized outer layer of skin, high in fat and other nutrients, upon which the baby caecilians feed every three nights or so! Talk about giving the shirt off your back. The young show a 10-fold increase in growth in just a week of this, so even though it might sound disgusting, it is a great way fatten your kids up and get them the heck out of the house, or burrow as it were.

Tune in next time for . . . something else obscure and intriguing and worth waiting for!