Saturday, September 3, 2011

Creature Feature: Olm (Proteus).

We love subterranean and cave life. No matter how squeamish one gets around things like salamanders, caves and living underground degenerate the eyes of things to the point where everything looks like it has a permanent smiley face. Plus, such things are usually white, which-


Kidding. That's a Proteus, a type of olm. Olm in general are neotenic salamanders that live in caves of Southern Europe.  They eat smaller, cave-dwelling animals including crabs, snails, and insects. Proteus is an especially popular type of olm to study because it's just so weird. Really, this thing looks like a Chinese dragon mated with a newt.

Like many cave, abyssal, and subterranean creatures, the olm is all but blind. The olm's degenerated eyes can only see the faintest darkness and shadows. Its pure white skin is also photosensitive. Like another strange herp, the tuatara, its pineal gland functions as a literal third eye.

The olm's main senses are hearing and another that allows it to pick up electric fields. The latter is so sensitive that he olm orients itself according to the Earth's magnetic poles. Experiments in the lab show that it responds to other electric fields as well. Other animals that employ a similar technique include the hammerhead shark and the platypus. You never thought you'd see those two in the same sentence, did you?

Olm are considered vulnerable for a number of reasons. The most shocking of these is that this amphibian only reproduces once every 14 years. Cave ecosystems in general are pretty fragile, and the olm's dwelling is no exception. The olm itself was put on the Slovenian conservation Red List - so no, you cannot have these baby dragons as pets.

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