What are Caecilians?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

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.

Caecilians may look like earthworms, but caecilians are carnivores that actually eat creatures like earthworms.
Caecilians may look like earthworms, but caecilians are carnivores that actually eat creatures like earthworms.

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.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

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

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Discussion Comments


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


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.

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