Inconceivable

The other night I was returning to base when I caught something slithering off the road. I assumed it was a snake, but when I saw what it really was I called everyone else over and told them to look at what I had found, since they were never going to see one again. It was a caecilian.

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This. Also, word of warning: any post with the word “slithering” in the first sentence isn’t for the faint of heart.

Caecilians look like worms, act like snakes, and feel like frogs, but that really doesn’t do justice to how fantastically weird they are.  They are legless amphibians, a distinct lineage whose closest living relative are salamanders but whose closest fictional relative is something out of a David Cronenberg movie.

Because besides the lack of external limbs–or external anything, for that matter–caecilians have perfectly smooth segmented bodies with a face so featureless it is often confused for the tail. The ones around here are usually a dull purplish grey, as if they were really going for the whole “alien nightmare” look. It’s almost a subtle body horror.  Whereas spiders and snakes evoke a knee-jerk terror response, caecilians are more spine-tinglingly unsettling. Until they open their little toothy mouths or extend their nose tentacles. Oh yeah, they have nose tentacles. Did I not mention that?

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Ok, maybe more HR Geiger than David Cronenberg.

Almost all species are exclusively fossorial, meaning they live underground and can justify their eyeless, limbless physiology. They excrete toxic slime for defense and lubrication and prey on worms. Unusual for amphibians, many species show parental care, with females often nursing their young. But before you get all mushy, I should note that they nurse their young on their own skin, with even unborn young scouring off the interior of their mother’s oviduct with their teeth. I will repeat: the babies eat their mother’s skin.

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Maybe more Eli Roth then HR Geiger.

Needless to say, I’m fascinated by these things. And due to their habits, they are very rarely seen. The only other time I’ve seen them was when I was digging up a septic tank and unearthed a nest about a meter down. I just put down my shovel and a bunch of fat, purple worms came wriggling out. Fabulous.

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Alright I got it: Tremors meets Dune with just a touch of Clive Barker. Horror movie buffs, eat your heart out.

So to see one out and about right in the middle of the road? I had to make the most of it. Unfortunately, the little guy wouldn’t hold still and proved too slimy to restrain for long. But I think both he and I had the desired effect on the assembled crowd, who left either enthralled or revolted. Or a bit of both.

As far as other caecilian facts go, I’m going to list them here before any of you jokers do in the comments:

–Caecilians can never go against the family

–A caecilian can never refuse a request on the day of his daughter’s wedding.

–Never ask a caecilian if he is Italian

–If a caecilian winks at you, you will be dead by sunrise.

–Never go up against a caecilian when death is on the line.

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I know you were thinking it.

Wild Life

Seriously, how do you describe that?

It’s been almost a month now since I started volunteer work here at this little station on the beach of Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula. This is the first break we’ve gotten between overlapping groups of schoolkids and tours. We’re backed up on Corcovado National Park, the largest reserve in Costa Rica, and within a short boat ride of Cano Island, one of the best preserved spots anywhere. Within reach, there’s rainforest, coral reef, and gorgeous tropical beach.

Most people passing through are here for the nature, in some form. And there is plenty of it. Whether it’s the university students here to study monkey movements, or kids jonesing for a giant snake, or birders trying to see as few giant insects as possible, there is something here for everyone. Colorful animals? We see macaws and blue morpho butterflies regularly. Weird animals? I still can’t find a good way to describe things like tapirs or tamanduas. Giant bugs? Yes. Oh lord yes.

I will never get used to the staggering level of diversity here, but even more so the unpredictability of rare animal encounters. I was helping dig drainage ditches when we unearthed a nest of caecilians. I have spent hours unsuccessfully looking for those things, and there they were in the gutter. Once I turned a corner on a trail to find a tapir standing in broad daylight, blithely eating leaves ten meters away. The beaches here are crawling with little moray eels and mantis shrimp. I know exotic is a relative term, but creatures here just seem more interesting.