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New discovery of young amphibians eating their mother alive

Most mothers would do anything to give their children the best start in life, but one amphibian mother is really dedicated: she lets her babies peel and eat her own skin.

A new collaborative study today reveals a form of parenting never seen before in land-living animals. Females of the worm-like amphibian Boulengerula taitanus transform their outer skin into a nutrient-rich meal for their babies to peel and eat with specialised teeth. 

'That this amazing behaviour has never been seen before shows how much we still have to learn about the diversity of these animals,' said Mark Wilkinson, one of three zoologists at the Natural History Museum who participated in the research. 'You can draw parallels between skin feeding in these creatures and lactation in mammals, so studying how this form of parenting evolved might shed light on how parenting developed in mammals.'

Kenyan amphibian B. taitanus can grow up to 30cm long and is part of a group of snake-like caecilians that are related to frogs and newts. B. taitanus young hatch from eggs, and this new form of parenting may provide a missing link between egg-laying and live-bearing caecilians. Foetuses of live-bearing caecilians use similar teeth to feed on the modified lining of the womb-like oviduct.  This internal feeding may have developed from external skin feeding.

Caecilians are burrowers in tropical soils and their underground behaviour is rarely seen. The team captured the babies enthusiastically feeding on their mothers on video, confirming previous suspicions that these amphibians used skin feeding to nurture their young.

This research, published in Nature today, was led by Alexander Kupfer, Hendrik Müller and Mark Wilkinson at the Natural History Museum, working with researchers from institutes in Brazil, Germany and the USA. It builds on research done fifty years ago by H. W. Parker, a zoologist at the Natural History Museum, who reported the discovery of the specialised teeth in the foetuses of live-bearing caecilians in Nature.


Notes for editors

  • Winner of the 2004 Large Visitor Attraction of the Year award, the Natural History Museum is also a world-leading science research centre. Through its collections and scientific expertise, the Museum is helping to conserve the extraordinary richness and diversity of the natural world with groundbreaking projects in 68 countries. The Museum is committed to encouraging public engagement with science. This has been greatly enhanced by the Darwin Centre, a major new initiative, which offers visitors unique access behind the scenes of the Museum. Phase One of the project opened to the public in 2002 and Phase Two is scheduled to open in 2008.
  • This research was part-funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), which is one of
     one of the UK's eight research councils. It uses a budget of about £350m a year to fund and carry out impartial scientific research in the sciences of the environment. NERC trains the next generation of independent environmental scientists. It is addressing some of the key issues facing mankind such as global warming, renewable energy and sustainable economic development.

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