What is this alien amphibian and where does it come from?

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By Alejandro Arteaga. January 2019.

This might be the scariest creature you can imagine, but despite its incredible resemblance, it is not an alien from a horror film, and you will likely never come across one.

The "alien" is actually a Giant Caecilian (Caecilia pachynema), a legless, earthworm-like amphibian most closely related to frogs, toads, and salamanders. Caecilians lack limbs, but they have vertebrae, a solid skull, and jaws filled with teeth adapted to capture earthworms, their favorite meal.

Close up shot of the mouth of Caecilia pachynema, showing its teeth

Museum specimen of a Giant Caecilian (Caecilia pachynema) showing its teeth. Photo by Alejandro Arteaga.

The reason why you will likely never see a Giant Caecilian (Caecilia pachynema) is because this species lives buried underground, and is only found in an isolated, rapidly disappearing and surprisingly narrow stretch of cloudforest in southwestern Ecuador. If you wanted to see this creature, you would first have to find a patch of cloudforest in the area (there are virtually none left!) and explore it at night during the most torrential rainfall you can imagine (this is the only time giant caecilians come to the surface).

Studio picture of an adult Caecilia pachynema

Whole body picture of an adult Giant Caecilian (Caecilia pachynema) showing its characteristic body rings. Photo by Alejandro Arteaga.

If you are not afraid of the unknown, finding a burrowing alien is possible and exciting. In January 2019, a team of biologists of Tropical Herping, and park rangers of Fundación Jocotoco joined forces to explore a remote and nearly intact stretch of cloudforest in the province of El Oro, Ecuador. In this forest, the only remaining one in the area at an elevation of 1800–2200 m, the team started to walk along a stream during a downpour.

Cloudforest where the cousin of alien was found

Remote cloudforest where the "cousin of alien" was found. Photo by Lucas Bustamante.

Amanda Quezada, a biologist of Universidad del Azuay, was the first to see the creature.

"I saw it moving slowly in the water along the stream. I was not afraid, but actually ecstatic, because I knew how rare these animals are. I got the impression that they are not aggressive, but they are extremely slippery (like a soap), making them almost impossible to catch".

Close up shot of the mouth of Caecilia pachynema, showing its teeth

Museum specimen of a Giant Caecilian (Caecilia pachynema) showing its teeth. Photo by Alejandro Arteaga.

Luckily, Martin Schaefer and Michaël Moens, directors of Fundación Jocotoco, value caecilians and other perhaps unpopular creatures that live in the unique cloudforests around Buenaventura Reserve which hold many endemic species found nowhere else on Earth. Now, Jocotoco is joining forces with Rainforest Trust to seek support to protect this patch of cloudforest in order to let this "cousin of alien" keep frightening, but not doing any harm, to humans for many years to come.

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