Biologists in South Florida have captured the bizarre worm-like amphibian commonly known as the Caecilian in the Tamiami Canal. This is the first time this species has been spotted in U.S. waters, making it an exciting find.

The unique Rio Cauca caecilian (Typhlonectes natans) is an amphibian native to Colombia and Venezuela. There is not much known about these elusive creatures other than the fact that they are predators that hunt worms, small animals and other amphibians. They have previously never been documented in America’s vast wetland ecosystem and since their discovery in Florida, several samples have been caught and researched by the Florida Museum of Natural History.

“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, Florida Museum’s herpetology collection manager in an official press release

At this point, we really don’t know enough to say whether caecilians are established in the C-4 Canal,” Sheehy said. “That’s what we want to find out.”

The captured samples all appear to be black and look like scaleless snakes or eels but are otherwise deemed harmless. They are related to Typhlonectes compressicauda or the Cayenne caecilian, a well-known amphibian that lives in the waters of the Amazon basin, Peru, and Colombia.

They were first spotted in 2019 by FWC officers in shallow water during a routine survey of the Tamiami Canal. Upon DNA analysis, this two-foot-long specimen was identified. Though the first captured specimen died in captivity the museum has received other live specimens and reports of several other spottings in and around the Florida area. This hints at a thriving population rather than a random specimen brought over by predatory birds. Efforts are underway to study the current population and habits to assess their potential impact on the environment. Invasive species are often analysed to understand any potential impact to avoid the ‘Koi conundrum’ where a new species takes over.

Caecilians burrow into fertile soil around water systems or river beds and go unnoticed. They are rarely caught in fishing lines or nets in South America because they spend most of their time underground. These fresh-water amphibians are distinct from frogs, toads, salamanders and newts. The specimens caught had tiny eyes that correspond to close relatives. Since they spend 90% of their time underground, they have poor vision. The name Caecilians translates to “blind ones.” 

They belong to an ancient family of amphibians that are also land-dwelling at times. The evolutionary tree of this species dates back 170 million years. The closest known range of this family of amphibians is a land-dwelling cousin found in Mexico.  

Little is known about their predatory behaviour and this might be the chance to study these fascinating creatures up close. The samples caught range from a few inches long to 5 feet in length. They have a pair of sensory tentacles located between their eyes and nostrils, structures that are unique to caecilians and may help them find food.

Finding these specimens in Florida could also be because of the prevalence of Typhlonectes compressicauda in the pet/ aquarium trade according to the Florida Museum of Natural History. Their appeal could stem from the range of colours they are found in including purple, deep blacks, yellow, blue and shades of violet. The species found in Florida, the Typhlonectes natans survive in a range of marshland and river ecosystems and are dark grey to black in colour. 

They are also known to occasionally surface to breathe and sometimes get mixed up with their more popular cousins in the aquarium trade. The appeal as pets also stems from their ability to reproduce live young ones, even in captivity. The gestation period lasts about 220 days. The study by the Florida Museum of Natural History is published in the journal Reptiles and Amphibians.

According to Sheehy, the canals in Florida mimic their natural ecosystem and could be a thriving species in North American waters as well. In the long list of extinction related news we cover, a species finding new areas to live in and potentially thrive is wholesome, to say the least. 

“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,” he added.