GO IN DEPTH

Weird & Wonderful Creatures: The Olm


The olm (Proteus anguinus), or cave salamander, is a type of amphibian that lives in central and southeastern Europe. Having adapted to live in dark, wet caves, olms lack pigment in their bodies, making them appear milky white, and are blind, thanks to poorly developed eyes. They also breathe through distinctive reddish, frilly gills, in addition to having functioning lungs, unlike most amphibians that move out of the water as adults.

Olms may lack the ability to see, but several of their other senses are highly evolved and specialized for their habitat: their sense of hearing allows them to sense sound wave vibrations in the water, as well as on the ground, and their senses of smell and taste allow them to locate prey in dark waters. Olms can consume a lot of food all at once and store excess nutrients for periods of time when food is scarce, allowing them to survive without eating for up to 10 years when necessary.

The olm has a slender, snakelike body and four short legs and averages 8–12 inches in length. It lives 60–70 years and possibly up to 100.

The first written record of an olm's appearance dates back to 1689, when a Slovenian naturalist reported that heavy rains and flooding swept olms out of their native caves and downstream into populated areas, where, due to the salamanders' unusual appearance, people thought the olms might be baby cave dragons. Olms also are sometimes called "human fish" because their appearance has been likened to that of people.

[Update: June 10, 2016: A rare baby olm was born on May 30.]

Do you think salamanders sound cool? Unless you live near the Adriatic Sea, you won't be able to see olms in the wild, but there are plenty of places where you can find their relatives closer to home! Read up on places where you might find salamanders, such as streambeds and caves. Watch as we explore Jean Lafitte Park in New Orleans and hunt for frogs, salamanders, and whatever else is out and about in this late night amphibian inventory at the 2013 BioBlitz.

You might also be interested in adaptations other animals have developed: You can build a fish whose adaptations make it suited to its ocean environment. Our Animal Adaptations lesson explores different types of animal features and behaviors that can help or hinder survival in a particular habitat and Where in the Wild? lesson introduces students to the concept of animal camouflage.

Finally, check out some other ancient things you might find in a caves: paintings and bears.

Photo Credit: Arne Hodalič (Author's own work. Uploaded with permission.) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

 

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