A caecilian biting off more than it can chew

Caecilian eating giant earthworm

A caecilian (legless amphibian) trying to eat a Giant Earthworm in our Rio Zunac Reserve. Photo: Luis and Fausto Recalde/ EcoMinga

Caecilians are poorly-known legless amphibians that live in wet forests (some species are aquatic). They are seldom encountered, and scientists do not even know what many of the species eat. Our forest guards are always walking around in the wet forests of our reserves, though, so they see some very unusual things which help fill in the gaps in our knowledge of cloud forest biology. In this case, our guards Luis and Fausto Recalde came upon this caecilian repeatedly biting a Giant Earthworm. For those of you who aren’t familiar with these earthworms, they can stretch out to be two to three feet long, and when they move underground in swampy soil, we can often hear the gurgling sounds they make as they pass through the muck. This particular Giant Earthworm is much too big for this little caecilian. Nevertheless it kept trying to eat this worm for the twenty minutes that our guards stayed to watch it.

Caecilians belong to an ancient lineage that split off from other amphibian lineages even before the frogs and salamanders began to diverge from each other. Jerry Coyne recently posted about these enigmatic creatures in his website, Why Evolution is True; there you can see some fancy, colorful  ones. Ours are always bluish like the one eating the worm. We actually see them often. Here is another individual:

Another caecilian. This one was in our Cerro Candelaria Reserve. Photo: Luis Recalde/ EcoMinga

Our frequent encounters suggest that caecilians are not rare but rather overlooked. My friend Harold Greeney, who has a biological station (Yanayacu) a few hours’ drive from our area, made an interesting observation that suggests the same thing. He made observations of the nest of a Barred Hawk (Leucopternis princeps, sometimes classified as Morphnarchus princeps). Most of the prey brought to the nest were caecilians!

Luis Recalde with a caecilian.

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