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What are Caecilians?

Mary McMahon
Updated Mar 05, 2024
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Caecilians are limbless amphibians in the order Gymnophiona, also known as Apoda. At first glance, caecilians look almost like snakes, earthworms, or eels, but these creatures are not actually related. There are at least 120 caecilian species around the world, and there may be many more; these animals have not been very thoroughly studied, as they can be hard to find. Several zoos have caecilians in their collections, for people who are interested n a closer view at these interesting and shy animals.

These limbless amphibians are tropical, found in Southern and Central America, Asia, and Africa. They are adapted for a life of burrowing and swimming, with very sleek, muscular bodies which typically come in earthy tones like brown and green, although some caecilians have colorful stripes. Many caecilians spend most of their lives underground, while some South American species prefer to live in aquatic environments. In both cases, caecilians are carnivores, eating small insects, earthworms, and an assortment of other small creatures.

The name for this order of animals comes from a Latin word for “blind,” giving some people the mistaken idea that caecilians are blind. These amphibians do actually have eyes, but, like snakes, their eyes are covered with a layer of skin to protect them, and in some cases the eyes may be deeply set into the skull. As a result, caecilian vision is not good, but the animals can distinguish between light and dark, and they use their eyes to help identify prey. The primary sensory organs of caecilians, however, are the antennae on the forehead, which can sense motion and chemical emissions from potential prey.

Caecilians can reproduce in a number of ways. Some lay eggs which hatch into gilled larvae which later develop into lunged adults. Others bear live young, nurturing larvae in their bodies. In one species, the young feed on the skin of the parents, which reforms every few days to ensure that the young have enough to eat. From birth, caecilians have extremely sharp teeth which are useful for grasping and manipulating prey.

Not much is known about caecilians, and more is being discovered all the time by researchers in the field and people who work with these animals in captivity. There are also a number of misconceptions about caecilians, probably because they are hard to find and difficult to study, making it hard to pin down actual information about these creatures.

Frequently Asked Questions

What exactly are caecilians?

Caecilians are a group of limbless, serpentine amphibians that are often mistaken for snakes or worms. They belong to the order Gymnophiona and are characterized by their smooth, moist skin and burrowing lifestyle. With over 200 species, caecilians are found in tropical climates around the world, where they inhabit underground environments or freshwater ecosystems.

How do caecilians differ from other amphibians?

Unlike their amphibian cousins, frogs and salamanders, caecilians have no limbs and possess a unique skull shape adapted for burrowing. Their sensory tentacle, located between the eye and nostril, is a distinctive feature that helps them navigate and detect prey in the dark, subterranean habitats. Caecilians also have internal fertilization, which is uncommon among amphibians.

What do caecilians eat and how do they find their food?

Caecilians are carnivorous, feeding on small invertebrates like earthworms, termites, and other soil-dwelling creatures. They locate their prey primarily through chemical cues, using their sensitive tentacle to detect the chemical signals of potential food. Their powerful jaws and recurved teeth allow them to grasp and consume their prey effectively.

Are caecilians blind, and if not, how well can they see?

Caecilians are not entirely blind, but their vision is highly reduced due to their subterranean lifestyle. Their eyes are often covered by skin or bone, providing limited light perception rather than detailed images. This adaptation helps protect their eyes from debris while burrowing, relying more on their other senses to navigate and find food.

How do caecilians reproduce?

Caecilians have a fascinating reproductive strategy. Many species exhibit viviparity, giving birth to live young, while others lay eggs. In some viviparous species, the young feed on a nutrient-rich layer of their mother's skin, a behavior known as maternal dermatophagy. This reproductive method ensures the offspring have a reliable food source immediately after birth.

Are caecilians at risk of extinction, and what are their threats?

Several caecilian species are indeed at risk of extinction, with habitat destruction being the primary threat. Deforestation, pollution, and soil degradation impact their underground habitats and breeding grounds. Conservation efforts are challenging due to their cryptic nature and the difficulty in studying them. Protecting their habitats is crucial for their survival.

AllThingsNature is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a AllThingsNature researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By anon315410 — On Jan 23, 2013

@shell4life: The mom does not feel anything because her skin is dead.

By shell4life — On Oct 25, 2011

Imagine your babies eating your skin as food! That is so creepy. I hope it doesn’t hurt the mother while they are consuming her flesh!

I’m guessing that since the skin grows back after a few days, their bodies are designed for his, so maybe it isn’t painful. It just immediately strikes me as cannibalistic.

It seems normal for babies to obtain food from the mother in the form of milk. When their nourishment involves actually consuming a part of her body, it seems so wrong somehow.

However, these creatures are mysterious and so different from humans in their structure. What’s normal for one species is repulsive to another.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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