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Planet Earth

Large and Lungless

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This odd, Muppet-like creature floated preserved and ignored in a jar in a museum in Vienna for some 100 years until Ronald Nussbaum discovered its secrets. Nussbaum, a University of Michigan zoologist who specializes in caecilians, the little-known group of amphibians to which this beast belongs, learned of the specimen from one of his graduate students. When Nussbaum dissected the two-and-a-half-foot-long creature, he found it had no lungs. Apparently, like some salamanders, this animal absorbs oxygen and expels carbon dioxide directly through its skin. Not only is this the sole lungless caecilian, it’s by far the largest lungless, four-limbed vertebrate known. Most other known caecilians are burrowing creatures, but Nussbaum believes the new specimen’s bizarre features suit it to life at the bottom of cool, high-oxygen mountain streams. Researchers have created a new genus for the unique animal called Atretochoana, meaning closed nostrils. Only one other specimen, collected in Brazil a few years ago, is known. Unfortunately, no records exist showing just where in Brazil the specimen was found. The curator told us that it was collected within the last three to five years, says Nussbaum. We’re pretty sure that it isn’t extinct.

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