Flesh-Eating Baby "Worm" Feasts on Mom's Skin

April 12, 2006

The doting mom of a wormlike amphibian found in Africa lets her babies devour her own flesh, scientists have found.

The tropical creature transforms its skin into a nourishing, fat-rich meal for its newborns to eat, researchers say.

This bizarre form of parental care was uncovered in Kenya (map), where a team of biologists observed the young of a caecilian, a type of limbless amphibian, feasting on their mother.

Furthermore, the youngsters' teeth appear to be specially designed for eating their mother's flesh.

The gruesome parenting method, described tomorrow in the journal Nature, has never before been seen in animals.

"There's nothing [in the animal kingdom] that peels off the skin and eats big chunks of it like these things are doing," said lead study author Mark Wilkinson, a zoologist at the Natural History Museum in London, England.

The team says the offspring of Boulengerula taitanus are entirely dependent on their parent's skin, which transforms into a kind of baby food that the study team likens to mother's milk in mammals.

The female's skin doubles in thickness during this period, the researchers found.

"You've got several layers of skin, and the outer layer is what they eat," Wilkinson said.

"When that's peeled off, the layer below matures into the next meal."

Spiked Points

The offspring were found to have special infant teeth, which they lose in adulthood, for gripping and stripping their mother's flesh.

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