What is it? No idea, but I don’t want it in my bathroom.

Posted: July 20, 2015 in Uncategorized

This blog will be much like the others – a bit shorter than usual, maybe, but thats partially because so little is known about the creature we’ll be meeting today. There will be some words, and some pictures. I’ll probably insult the population of some small but, as it turns out, very patriotic nation, and I shall have to learn the local lingo for ‘I’m so sorry’.

Aš atsiprašau , Lietuva. Jūs vaikinai yra kietas tikrai . (That’s via google translate. Have fun.)

Really the only difference is in the animal we’ll be talking about today, which was introduced to me by a friend, who I am choosing not to name. When you see what it looks like, you’ll understand why I’m slightly hesistant about naming the friend – for behold, Atretochoana eiselti.

This is the most bullied animal in all Creation [citation needed]. Image source is at the bottom of the page

Now, I see nothing at all strange about that animal’s appearance as well. And since you are a mture, responsible individual, neither do you. Others, however, with less restraint, have dubbed this the ‘Penis Snake’. After very, very, very, very, very careful Googling I’ve discovered that these dubbers are inaccurate, for it is not a snake at all, but rather an amphibian. Specifically, it is a caecillian, which we have met before – specifically, in the context of awful, awful amphibians that munch at their own mothers skin.

This paticular type lives in Brazil and grows to almost a metre in length, and with that, we’ve exhausted most of what we know about it. It was first discovered in a time historians have precisely located to ‘damned if we know, but probably in the late nineteenth century’. Then, it was mistakenly identified as another species of caeillian, and it spent most of the rest of twentieth century being as ignored as a large, metre long wormy amphibian that looks like something a bored teenager would scrawl over his textbook can be.

However, in the late 1990s scientists decided to actually have a look at this thing, and they discovered several odd things about it – most notably, the fact that it has no lungs.

Ask not “How does it breath” but rather “Why. Oh dear God, why?”. Nah, I’ll stop picking on them. Compared to some animals on here, these guys are chill.

This isn’t quite as rare among vertebrates as you might think – the largest order of salamanders, for example, are completely lungless – but it is still pretty rare. (Why would you lose lungs? Well, one theory is that if you do live in fast flowing water, lungs might hamper your movement by basically acting as unwanted buoyancy). Breathing through the skin efficiently generally requires one to be submerged in fast moving water in order to aquire enough oxygen. Previously, one other species of caellian ( Caecilita iwokramae) was thought to be lungless, but later on scientists realised it did actually have one well developed lung. Which, frankly, is something you’d hope a scientist would pick up on a bit earlier. Its the sort of thing you’d hope a man with lots of letters after his name would pick up on.

Or a woman with some letters after her name. We’re not prejudiced here, certainly not when the woman in question has a scalpel and knows how to use it.

Well, A. eiselti does indeed live in water, and appears to be spread over quite a large area of the Amazon (about 2000 km apart). But rather than living in clear, fresh, fast running, cold water the amphibian instead lives in muddy, warm water, which has led scientists to ask, basically, how the hell this thing gets enough oxygen into its body to survive. The fact it is long and narrow, with blood vessels only 2-3 cells deep within the epidermis, probably helps, but so far there’s no clear answer.

In fairness, if ‘scientific mystery’ can be applied to any animal, it should be one which looks like this.

Oh, and one more thing. In addition to being mysterious, very big, and evidently in a pact with some demon allowing it to breath where it should not, it also has, according to scientists, a very large number of teeth.

Basically, everything in this particular blogpost was stolen from Hoogmoed et al, Discovery of the largest lungless tetrapod, Atretochoana eiselti (Taylor, 1968) (Amphibia: Gymnophiona: Typhlonectidae), in its natural habitat in Brazilian Amazonia – and they’re the source of all the images too. Thanks guys. Ed. 

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