The olm is a cave-dwelling aquatic salamander species found exclusively in the central and southern part of Europe. They are often referred to as human fish, or baby dragon because of its pale fleshy skin.
Species: P. anguinus
Because of water pollution, olm population is decreasing day by day in their native environment. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species recognizes this little aquatic animal as a vulnerable species.
The scientific name for Olm is Proteus anguinus.
Their average size of an individual tends to be around 20 to 30 centimeters. However, researchers have noticed some individuals to reach up to 40 centimeters in length.
A fully grown olm can weigh around 130 to 150 grams. Olm has a snakelike body with translucent skin that is capable of producing melanin. They are primarily pink in color, but some individuals tend to be yellowish-white. Olm does not go through metamorphosis because of the unresponsiveness of some important tissues related to thyroxine, and thus it retains larval characteristics even when it is an adult. It has a pear-shaped head with a flattened, cylindrical snout, which is almost imperceptible. Its tail is relatively short compared to its body, and is encircled by a thin fin. It has short limbs. Their rear legs have two digits, while the front ones carry three digits. This species breath with their external feathery gills. The basic outermost difference between a male and a female are in the cloaca region.
For more than twenty million years, this species is living in the subterranean water-bodies in Adriatic coast’s karst regions. Its native range encompasses central Europe as well as southern Europe – primarily Slovenia’s southern region, Soča River basin in Italy, the southwestern part of Croatia, till Bosnia and Herzegovina. Olm’s introduced populations can be found in Kranj, Slovenia, and Vicenza, Italy.
Since olm spends their life in dark water-bodies, they have beautifully developed non-visual sensory systems. Though their eyes are covered with a layer of skin, yet they can sense the presence of light. They have a heightened sense of hearing and smell. This helps them to perceive their surroundings. In fact, these senses are a lot better developed compared to other amphibians that live on the surface. Recent studies suggest that they can sense magnetic and electric fields. Since they retain larval proportions, i.e. a large, thin body, this helps them to bear more sensory receptors. Apart from hypoxic conditions, their rudimentary lungs generally stay as an accessory when it comes to respiration. Their swimming technique resembles that of an eel. Olm can eat a great amount of food at one go and is capable of storing the nutrients in its liver. They can reabsorb their own tissues when there is food scarcity. Experiments in a controlled environment have shown that an individual can live up to ten years without consuming food.
These cave-dwelling species take sixteen years to reach sexual maturity. The olm is exclusively oviparous. Female olm usually breeds in every 10 to 13 years. Biologists argue over how many eggs a female lay over the course of its life.
A females specimen produces 2 to 35 eggs that are 12 millimetres in diameter,. In some cases, this number may reach up to 70. Tadpoles tend to be around one inch long at the time of hatching. In three to four months time, they reach their adult form.
They mainly feed on worms, insects, snails, larvae, and other tiny aquatic creatures. They do not chew, instead, swallow the food as a whole.
The average lifespan of an adult tends to be around 68 years. However, a study suggested that some individuals can survive for more than hundred years. It is known to have the longest lifespan among amphibians.
This species was first mentioned by naturalist Johann Weikhard von Valvasor in Glory of the Duchy of Carniola, in 1689.
To study and save this beautiful species of salamander, biologists are gearing to set up “cave laboratories” all across Europe. In the year 1952, a group of scientists set up one laboratory (that resemble their natural habitat) in Moulis, France. Currently, over 400 individuals live in the laboratory. It is one of the successful animal breeding programs in the world.
Since they live in underwater caves, they have a few predators.
Family Proteidae’s other still surviving genus, apart from this European species, is Necturus.
This species is Slovenia’s natural heritage, and is depicted on one of the tolar coins.
Slovenia’s oldest science magazine was called Proteus, first released in 1933.
Black olm (also known as Proteus anguinus parkelj) is olm’s only other recognized subspecies. Proteus anguinus parkelj is endemic to Črnomelj region in Slovenia. Slovenian Karst Research Institute members first found in the year 1986 while exploring Dobličica karst spring.
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