Caecilians are a too often overlooked member of the amphibians, but one species is currently making a name for itself in Florida. Following a chance discovery a few years ago, surveys have revealed that one particular caecilian may have dragged its way to permanent residency in the United States for the first time, as DNA analyses and specimens appear to show the non-native amphibian having set up camp in a canal. Where, you may ask? Florida, meet the penis snake.
These limbless, snake-like animals might not be all that much to look at but considering almost all of them are blind you can forgive evolution for letting looks fall by the wayside in pursuit of their bizarre morphology. Some species' loss of vision has even gone so far as growing skin over the eyes after so long spent scrabbling around underground, and they’ve adapted to be great diggers as a result.
We’ll leave it in the Internet’s capable hands to establish why caecilians have come to be known by some as penis snakes, but the specific invader currently wriggling free in Florida is Typhlonectes natans. Native to the drainage basins of the Cauca and Magdalena Rivers in Colombia, as well as the Maracaibo Basin in Venezuela, this rubbery runaway is certainly far from home. As research published in the journal Reptiles & Amphibians explains, it’s still too early to know if the unusual amphibians have successfully established a wild population, but the conditions in their adopted home are a good fit for these moisture-loving animals.
Suspicions regarding the penis snake's arrival were first aroused after a living specimen was caught by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission in Miami’s Tamiami Canal back in 2019 during a routine survey. The surprising find was captured and taken in as an invasive species but it failed to feed in captivity and died. Since then, several reports of sightings and specimens have been given to the FFWC from the same canal in Miami.
Penis snakes might not be high on the list for prospective pet owners, but they are easily accessible in the US pet trade. It stands to reason, then, that these invasive animals made their way into Florida’s wild waterways as an escapee or abandoned pet. Their release, whether on purpose or by accident, adds to an extensive list of invasive and exotic animals that have come to call Florida their home. Green iguanas have reached such numbers that Floridians have to prepare themselves for “iguana fall” when the weather gets cold, Burmese pythons are so pervasive the government is considering encouraging people to eat them to bring numbers down, and to this day there exists a wild population of Vervet monkeys that first escaped from a farm in the region back in 1948.
“To our knowledge, this represents the first record of a caecilian (order Gymnophiona) in Florida or anywhere else in the United States,” wrote the study authors. “As a result of this discovery, all three orders of extant amphibians are now known to occur in Florida, including many native species of frogs (Anura) and salamanders (Caudata) as well as several non-native species of frogs.”