A rare surprise in pile of garden mulch

There you are, working away turning over the pile of mulch, when you jump back and raise the garden fork to protect yourself. What the heck is that!! Snake? You get ready to strike and stop. That can’t be a worm, you think to yourself. No worm gets that big. But dang, it looks like a worm – if a worm were two feet long and hugely fat.

You take a step forward. The thing has moved and is almost gone so you pull out more mulch and there it is. Eww. It must be a worm. It’s segmented like a worm, no snake  Victoria Torleyscales. It’s the color of a worm, sort of, what the heck? Kind of an eerie thing. And then it’s gone again, pushing its way through the mulch.

The whole incident has you creeped out, so you head inside to look through some books on snakes. No luck, so you hit in Internet. This takes a while, then you find it. The name, caecilian, is as odd as the animal itself.

Caecilians are an ancient animal, unique, and, if you believe the books, rare. Once textbook points out that the majority of biologists and herpetologists have never met a caecilian in the wild. Be proud, you have them beat. Not just that, but you took the time to really look at an animal you thought at first was a snake and let it live.

I have seen a caecilian in the garden under a rotting log. That is their habitat, rotting vegetation, compost piles, the loose soil under our feet. Like a worm, they live in the dark and their eyes are adapted to the dark. Their segments, like those of the worm, help push them through the soil but can anchor them while they use powerful muscles to push the head forward. And the head, unlike that of a worm, has bones in it. Another surprise is that caecilians are amphibians, like frogs and toads. In mud or water, they swim like an eel.

The caecilian I saw? My first reaction was just like yours – I jumped back. My second, recognizing that this was no snake, was to make a grab for it, but it was too fast. This was probably a good thing because – last surprise – their skin secretes a substance that is hemolytic, not something you want in a cut or scrape.

So there you have it; the gentle (to us) caecilian. Look for him in the compost pile and, if you find him, gaze in wonder. You have seen something many scientists have never seen.

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