A new skin-eating amphibian species has been discovered in French Guiana. The creature, also known as a skin-feeding caecilian or Microcaecilia dermatophaga, was announced earlier in March in the open access journal PLOS One. Although it looks something like a snake because it has no limbs, caecilians are slimy because they are actually amphibians — making them more closely related to the frogs.
They’re called skin-eaters or flesh-eaters because of the somewhat unappetizing way that the mothers feed their young. After the babies hatch from the eggs, they feast on a thick, fat-rich layer of skin on the mother’s own body.
Like people, they have baby teeth that they lose as they get older. Unlike people, the specialized baby teeth are actually adapted to scrape skin.
Believe it or not, it’s the fourth species of the skin-eating amphibians that scientists have found, although the researchers noted that it’s the first caecilian species of any kind discovered in French Guiana in 150 years. This species is not closely related to the other flesh-eaters, which means that the genes for this bizarre adaptation probably evolved very early in the caecilians’ 250 million years on earth.
When the first skin-eating caecilian species was discovered in 2006 in Kenya, it was hailed as only the second species of caecilian then known to be born with teeth. The first known species didn’t wait to eat its mother’s skin. Instead, it had the even more delightful habit of eating its mother’s oviduct inside the womb.
And if that isn’t enough caecilian weirdness for you, check out the so-called “penis snake” discovered in Brazil in 2012. This delightful species of caecilian looks like … well, you figure out what it looks like from the nickname.
The new skin-eating amphibian joins an interesting crew of slimy animals.
[photo of skin-eating amphibian courtesy discoverers Mark Wilkinson, Emma Sherratt, Fausto Starrace, and David J. Gower]