Odd Creatures is a recurring column about the world’s weirdest species written by award-winning science writer and author Bec Crew, and illustrated by the super-talented Aiyana Udesen
“Like a piece of intestine with legs on it,” according to British naturalist and TV presenter Nick Barker, there’s nothing in the world quite like a Mexican mole lizard.
Neither mole nor lizard, the Mexican mole lizard (Bipes biporus) lives up to a third of its name by being a native of the Baja California peninsula in Mexico. Not a whole lot is known about this very secretive animal, but what we do know of the Mexican mole lizard is that everything you see here makes this little guy perfectly suited to a life lived in the dirt.
Mexican mole lizards live almost exclusively in a shallow underground environment made of loose or sandy soil, but can dig burrows up to 15 centimetres below the surface in search of food, a good place to mate, or just some valuable time away from all that desert heat. They belong to a lgenus called Bipes, which means “two legs”, and yep, all four species within this genus have them. These legs are extremely special adaptations – within a larger group of legless reptiles called Amphisbaenia, the four Bipes are the only species out of almost 200 close relatives to have ended up with them. At first glance, those rather disproportionately stumpy limbs might not look like much, but wait till you get a look at these very impressive digging claws.
Mexican mole lizards are so good at adapting, they once had two back legs, but got rid of them because they weren’t using them. We know this because when you X-ray a Mexican mole lizard, you can see the remnants of its missing legs poking out in its bone structure.
The tube-like body of the Mexican mole lizard tends to reach around 20 cm long and less than 1cm wide, and its scales are a rather pretty shade of pastel pink. And not only do these guys have scales on their bellies to help propel themselves through the soil the same way snakes do, but their bodies are highly segmented, which means they also move along just like earthworms.
If, like me, you think Mexican mole worms are adorable – just look at that face – then we have no problems, but if you think they’re creepy, let me put creepy in perspective for you. This is a caecilian, which basically looks like a Mexican mole lizard, except that it’s purple, has no legs, and looks like its face has been stuffed into a condom, nice and tight. Caecilians they move their segmented worm-like bodies around like, well, worms; they live their entire lives underground; and are only found in warm environments – all of which isn’t so different from the Mexican mole worm.
Except that when certain species of caecilians are born, they spend the first few weeks of their lives eating their mums alive. One newly discovered species of caecilian that engages in this practice has been named Microcaecilia dermatophaga (which literally means “little skin-feeding caecilian”), and investigations into the species’ behaviour in French Guiana last year revealed that the babies are born with little razer-sharp teeth, specifically designed to tear the flesh off their doting mother until they’re big enough to go out on their own and find less disgusting food. How great is our little Mexican friend looking now? All it eats is insects.
—Bec Crew / @BecCrew