New Species Related to ‘Penis Snake’ Discovered in Burma

By Samantha Michaels 23 April 2014

RANGOON — A new species of a strange order of limbless amphibian has been discovered in Burma, according to a report in a scientific journal for animal taxonomists.

The Ichthyophis multicolor, or the “colorful ich,” was discovered in Burma’s Irrawaddy Division, according to a report published in Zootaxa journal this month. It is a new species of caecilian amphibians, an order of amphibians which superficially resemble earthworms or snakes, and scientists say it stands out because of its distinct coloring.

Caecilians are among the least studied amphibians in the world because they typically burrow in the soil underground. They live in tropical climates, with about 200 species recognized by scientists. The largest and most famous of these species, known as the “penis snake” (Atretochoana eiselti), was discovered in Brazil near the mouth of the Amazon.

Burma’s colorful ich belongs to the a family of caecilians known as Ichthyophis, which are found in Sri Lanka and India through mainland China, as well as Sundaland and islands including the Philippines that are west of the Wallace Line, an imaginary boundary line that runs through Indonesia and separates animal species of Asian and Australian descent.

“Although multiple species and specimens of Ichthyophis have been documented from Thailand and from Northeast India, including some recently described species, there are only a few old literature records of any caecilians from [Burma], and the caecilian fauna of that country must be considered essentially unexplored and unknown,” a team of scientists from the United Kingdom, United States and New Zealand wrote in the report.

The scientists described 14 specimens of striped caecilians that were obtained in 2000 from a single location in Irrawaddy Division by the California Academy of Sciences. The specimens were collected on the surface of sandy, hard packed soil following a period of heavy rain.

“The species is unusual among Ichthyophis in having a dark ventrolateral stripe … bordering a much paler ventral coloration, a feature found elsewhere only in I. tricolor from peninsular India. Numerous other features distinguish the [Burma] population from I. tricolor, indicating the former to be a new species,” the scientists wrote.

The specimens from Burma were described as having more vertebrae than the similarly colored I. tricolor of India, and their tentacular apertures were nearly or more than twice as far from their nostrils than from their eyes.

Other striped caecilians have been reported in Burma in the past. However, these were described as I. glutinosus, a species which scientists now believe to be restricted to Sri Lanka.

“Thus the historical reports of caecilians from [Burma] may well be of as yet undescribed species,” the scientists wrote.

The report was co-authored by Mark Wilkinson from the zoology department of the Natural History Museum in London, along with scientists from Harvard University and the University of Michigan in the United States as well as the University of Otago in New Zealand.

They said that like most caecilian species, very little is known about the colorful ich’s geographic range or environmental requirements. “That specimens were found in areas of human disturbances gives some hope that they are not immediately threatened, but this depends foremost on a reasonable range size,” they wrote, recommending further fieldwork and systematic research to develop a more accurate inventory of the caecilian fauna in the country.

According to the Natural History Museum in London, caecilians are known for certain bizarre properties, such as a sensitive tentacle that likely evolved from unused components of the eye, as well as scales that form underneath the skin.

“When there’s not a lot known about the group, sometimes people make the mistake of thinking there’s not a lot to know about them,” Wilkinson was quoted as saying on the museum’s website.

“They have a lot of strange features, and because they are a poorly known group the adaptive significance of those features is not well understood.”