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African amphibians make extreme parental sacrifice: The skin off their backs

ANN ARBOR, Mich.---Just as baby mammals depend on their mothers' milk, the young of the African amphibian Boulengerula taitanus nourish themselves by stripping off and eating the fat-rich outer layer of their mothers' skin, according to an international team of researchers that includes University of Michigan biologist Ronald Nussbaum.

The findings are reported in today's issue (April 13) of the journal Nature.

Hatchlings of B. taitanus---a legless amphibian that looks something like an earthworm---are born with specialized teeth for peeling and eating skin. Their mothers' skin is specially modified to be particularly nutritious, and the young depend entirely on this food source for perhaps as long as four weeks, Nussbaum said.

"This form of post-hatching parental care, in which the mother provides nutrition to her hatchlings via her skin, has never been seen before in amphibians, and may be unique among vertebrates to this group of amphibians," said Nussbaum, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and a curator in the U-M Museum of Zoology. "Some cichlid fishes are known to provide their hatchlings with nutrition through skin secretions, but this does not include skin feeding."

Earlier observations of another species in the same order of amphibians foreshadowed the latest discovery. In the 1990s, the same research team found that newborn Siphonops annulatus had teeth and stayed with their mothers for some time after hatching. Those observations, coupled with the unusually pale skin color of mothers caring for young, led Nussbaum and colleagues to speculate that S. annulatus hatchlings fed on glandular secretions from the mother's skin, but the scientists never observed such behavior.

In the current study, the team collected 21 B. taitanus females along with their broods and put the animals into small, plastic boxes filled with soil to simulate natural nesting conditions. Then they observed and videotaped interactions
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Contact: Nancy Ross-Flanigan
rossflan@umich.edu
734-647-1853
University of Michigan
13-Apr-2006


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