Traffic, partiers, sunshine. And now caecilians?
You can find them all in South Florida. We know about the first three in the list, so let’s try to explain the fourth.
Weird, noodle-shaped amphibians (pronounced “Sicilians”) have been found in the Tamiami Canal, the first discovery of its kind seen in the United States, according to a new report from the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville.
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officers recently came upon one of the obscure legless creatures in the canal, about a mile south of Miami International Airport. Scientists used DNA testing to identify the specimen, whose name comes from the Latin word “caecus,” meaning “blind,” due to their small or nonexistent eyes. Caecilians have sensory “tentacles” located on their head that may help them find food.
The aquatic, limbless, worm-like animals belong to an ancient order of amphibians that has been around since even before the dinosaurs.
The species that was found in Miami is a Rio Cauca caecilian, or Typhlonectes natans, a native of Colombia and Venezuela. Sometimes incorrectly called rubber eels, they are the most common caecilian in the pet trade and were possibly discarded by an owner that could no longer handle it.
Experts say it’s too early to predict the critters’ potential impact on our ecosystem.
“Very little is known about these animals in the wild, but there’s nothing particularly dangerous about them, and they don’t appear to be serious predators,” said Coleman Sheehy, the museum’s herpetology collection manager. “They’ll probably eat small animals and get eaten by larger ones. This could be just another non-native species in the South Florida mix.”
Sheehy said he first learned of the caecilian when FWC officers sent him a photograph in 2019, puzzled at the two-foot-long eel-like animal they had netted in shallow water during a routine survey of the Tamiami Canal, also known as the C-4 Canal. After dying in captivity, the caecilian was sent to the Florida museum for analysis.
Little is known about this group of “reclusive” animals as many caecilians spend their lives burrowed underground. They can range in size from a few inches to five feet long, depending on the species, and are found in southern Mexico, as well as parts of Africa and Southeast Asia.
The one uncovered in the Miami area canal was a shocker.
“This was not on my radar,” Sheehy said. “I didn’t think we’d one day find a caecilian in Florida. So, this was a huge surprise.”
Since the FWC find, Sheehy has received several other reports of caecilians in the canal, and will conduct fieldwork there to find more and try to figure out the situation.
“At this point, we really don’t know enough to say whether caecilians are established in the C-4 Canal,” he said. “That’s what we want to find out.”