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Wednesday, July 11, 2018

A Face Without Eyes

Aquatic caecilians are one of the most common amphibians seen in zoo and aquarium collections.  Presumably it's because they are the only caecilian species which readily lends itself to display in a zoo; most of the other species are fossorial (burrowing), a lifestyle which doesn't make for a very fascinating exhibit.  With its graceful, sinuous movements through the water, the aquatic species is easily visible, although it is often mistaken for an eel.

I can remember the first time that I ever saw an aquatic caecilian - unlike most zoo animals, the first time I encountered one was the day I started working with them.  In this case, I was a keeper in the reptile house of a large southern zoo.  The back holding area was filled with many tanks and tubs holding a variety of species.  Included among these was a tank of aquatic caecilians.

It was my job to feed them their preferred food - earthworms - a few times a week.  It was a tedious job, swishing the worm back and forth on forceps, waiting for each caecilian to take one.  I made up a little song that I would sing under my breath as I tried to charm each rubber eel to eat.  Occasionally, the caecilians would loose interest in the earthworm.  Instead, they would poke their long snouts out of the water and point them at me.

"Caecilian" comes for the Latin for "blind" which isn't true, but at first glimpse seems to be.  The eyes are extremely tiny, barely pin pricks in an otherwise expressionless face.  I'm not sure why, but all the time while I worked with the caecilians, I became terrified by the idea of being bitten by one.  Even though it would be harmless (and presumably not that painful based on their size), and that I worked in a room filled with snakes and lizards and crocodilians - it was the caecilians that made me shudder and pull back when they'd slither out of the water.  I think it was the eyes.  The idea of being bitten by an animal without (visible) eyes creeped me out.

As it was, I was never bitten by one of my slimy little charges.  That being said, I only worked with them for a few months before leaving that job, and never again.  Maybe if I'd spent more time with them, I would have grown fonder and more trusting of them.  Then again, maybe one of them would have finally gotten me.

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