Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Animal of the Week -- January 21, 2008


I am again amazed by the early appearance of a harbinger of spring, but I fear that I bang on about this every year, so I'll skirt around the issue by not mentioning the full name of the animal -- despite it being mid January, I saw five or six "Bs" this weekend just gone! But anyway, this sign of climate change has nothing to do with this week's animal of the week, or does it? This week's animal is Boulengerula niedeni (the Sagalla caecilian).

This limbless animal has been picked as one of ten amphibians to be the focus of conservation efforts in the next wave of the EDGE (Evolutionarily Distinct & Globally Endangered) programme, which is run by the Zoological Society of London to protect the most vulnerable and evolutionary isolated animals, drawing attention to some of the less glamorous species. Caecilians may look like earthworms, but they are actually a highly specialised offshoot of the amphibian family tree inhabiting the leaf litter and top soil of equatorial forests.

Sagalla caecilians are found in a 30 km square region of southern Kenya, and while they might be quite numerous in that small area, being found nowhere else, they are incredibly sensitive to changes in or degradation of that environment. In a marvellous coincidence with last week's animal, Sagalla caecilians have tentacles beneath their eyes, or rather below where their eyes should be, for they, like many other caecilians are blind. A close relative of the Sagalla caecilian, Boulengerula taitanus, has a bizarre maternal habit -- females brooding a clutch of eggs develop a thick layer of skin on which the young, unable to eat other foods, nourish themselves without apparent detriment to their mother's wellbeing.

Turns out AOTW has featured EDGE species since the start, the first edition was one of their highlighted mammals, the solenodon (http://animal-of-the-week.blogspot.com/2004/10/animal-of-week-october-25-2004-first.html), and several others flop, slither or flounder around my backfiles in the webzoo (the baiji http://animal-of-the-week.blogspot.com/2004/10/animal-of-week-october-25-2004-first.html; and the giant salamander http://animal-of-the-week.blogspot.com/2005/05/animal-of-week-may-30-2005-giant.html).

Let's just hope that the Sagalla caecilian fares better than the baiji, which is now presumed extinct. I suppose this amphibian has family on its side. You don't want to mess with caecilians, you do and you'll wake up with a horse's head in your bed.


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