Got Milk? This Amphibian Does

Scientists say wormlike caecilians offer this surprising sustenance to their young, like mammals
By Jenn Gidman,  Newser Staff
Posted Mar 8, 2024 9:18 AM CST
Got Milk? This Amphibian Does
Stock photo.   (Getty Images/FabioMaffei)

Researchers already knew that baby ringed caecilians, a wormlike amphibian that lives burrowed underneath the earth, gain some of their nutrition by feeding on the skin of their own mother once or twice a week. But when a team out of Brazil studying the creature (also known as Siphonops annulatus) noticed how active and energetic the babies were, despite their limited chow-down routine, they tracked the young occasionally gathering around the end of mom's tail for a more surprising source of sustenance: milk, more typically seen produced in mammals to feed their young, reports NPR.

The New York Times notes that study co-author Carlos Jared and his team have been speculating about such milk secretions in caecilians since the late '80s, and they were able to confirm it after collecting 16 mother caecilians and their hatchlings from cacao farms in Brazil, then observing them until the babies became independent. While watching video of caecilian feeding times, the scientists also noticed other behavior not typical of amphibians. "They cry, they emit sounds, click click click click—it's like a begging behavior" when they're apparently craving their mother's milk, notes study co-author Pedro L. Mailho-Fontana.

According to the research published in the journal Science, the liquid produced by caecilians is mainly made up of lipids and carbs, much like the milk produced in mammals, and is "released through the maternal vent, seemingly in response to tactile and acoustic stimulation by the babies." To those who find the creature repulsive, Instituto Butantan biologist Marta Antoniazzi tells NPR that, "I really don't agree that they are disgusting. They are kind of elegant, and they have a shiny body and a very nice face." Antoniazzi also reflects on the concept of "convergent evolution," which takes place when different species end up sharing similar traits. "Nature is very creative," she notes. "Sometimes it gives the same solution to different groups of animals." (More discoveries stories.)

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