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A new family of caecilians, the most enigmatic branch of the amphibians, has been discovered in northeastern India.
The animals, which at first glance resemble worms, live in forest soil and are most closely related to an African group of caecilians. The females incubate their young for several months without eating. As reported Royal Society journal Proceedings B, the animals may be threatened by population growth and slash-and-burn agriculture according to scientists. Caecilians are very hard to spot as they live either underground or under leaf litter that lies on the soil. The new discovery was the result of about 250 soil-digging expeditions over five years that covered every northeast Indian state. Researchers found they had not only a new species on their hands, but the first representative of a hitherto unknown family. This is the 10th caecilian family to be identified, and the team named it Chikilidae, derived from the name used in the local Garo tongue. DNA evidence suggests the family split from its closest African relatives more than 140 million years ago, when the ancient super-continent of Gondwana fragmented, separating present-day India and Africa. Unlike the familar frogs and salamanders, caecilians are limbless and smooth. Their eyesight is very limited and their skulls adapted for burrowing. Reproduction and rearing of the young are varied. The most unusual known example is a species where the babies eat the mother’s skin, which she sheds for the purpose. Chikilidae’s habits are not quite so spectacular, though the mothers stay wrapped around their developing eggs for 2-3 months at a time, apparently not eating at all during this period. One positive point for the new discoveries is that the region seems to be free of the fungal disease chytridiomycosis, which has devastated amphibian populations in many parts of the world.