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Consider the Olm

Updated: Apr 22

Olmungandr, the World Salamander (by Maxwell Schumacher)

You’ve probably noticed a strange creature prominent in the logo for this blog. Perhaps you looked at it and your first thought was “is that an Eastern dragon covered in foreskin?” That creature just so happens to be my very favorite animal on the face of the Earth, one so cool that it inspired me to make this blog just so I could tell you about it. That, my friends, is the olm. It is a European salamander capable of living in one of the most extreme environments on Earth, the inky depths of Earth’s twisted caverns. It can see despite having no eyes, has one of the most accurate strikes in the animal kingdom, and has mastered its extreme environment using a secret superpower: supernatural laziness. Consider: the olm. Proteus anguinus.

I know it’s not much to look at, but this bizarre salamander is a master of living at the extremes of life. The olm is a species of aquatic salamander native to Southeast Europe, with populations in Italy, Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia. It is a type of animal known as a troglobite, meaning that it lives its life exclusively in deep caves, a world of total darkness, completely alien to our own. Down there, no plant life grows, so what nutrients enter the ecosystem comes in the form of detritus floating down from the surface. As such, Olms eat basically anything they can get their mouths on. They usually snack on invertebrates like isopods and snails or snag decomposing matter that floats down from the surface. Think of it as the animal equivalent of when you get high and sit in the dark at 3 AM eating handfuls of shredded cheddar cheese. This might sound like a terrible survival strategy, but the olm has succeeded in its weird little niche for over 100 million years. There were olms when Tyrannosaurus roamed the Earth and they lived basically the same way they do now, slowly and efficiently.

Over the millennia, olms have picked up a variety of traits that make them masters of living in a pitch-black barren wasteland. They have no skin pigment (thus why they look like an escaped uncircumcised penis) and no eyes. They can sense light through their skin, but beyond that they are completely blind. To compensate, the olm has an impeccable sense of smell and electroreception, the ability to detect the electrical signals of other organisms, much like a shark does. These adaptations allow the olm to zero in on its prey and strike accurately, despite having no eyes. After all, when a meal may only come by once every few years, missing one could mean certain death. Olms primarily lay eggs, but if water conditions are unfavorable, they can actually hold their eggs inside of their bodies and give birth to live young. Other salamanders can do this too, but it is still exceedingly rare.

Olms can often be found snuggling up against one another in their cave homes, though exactly why they do this is unknown. Some researchers have proposed this is to make finding a mate more likely, but olms will equally cuddle with a member of the same or opposite sex. Perhaps olms just know of the importance of kissing the homies goodnight. (Image Attribution: Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

As I mentioned before, though, the olm’s most impressive ability is supernatural laziness. Food in the depths can be exceedingly rare, and to compensate, olms have perfected the art of exerting as little energy as they possibly can. An olm may not move the distance equivalent to an American football field in their entire life, and the longest on record an olm has gone without moving is SEVEN YEARS. To put that into perspective, as of the writing of this there are olms that haven’t moved since my sophomore year of college, olms that haven’t moved since Hugh Hefner died, olms that haven’t moved since Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN came out (they still haven’t heard the new Kung Fu Kenny). This strategy works swimmingly, too—an olm can go up to a decade between meals and requires very little oxygen. They only breed once every dozen years and don’t reach sexual maturity until the age of twelve, which is very late for a salamander. This incredibly long stretch of time between mating is actually quite common amongst troglobites and deep-sea organisms, as mating requires energy and these creatures need to have glacially-slow metabolisms to survive. The olm’s slow metabolism grants it one additional perk as well—an uncommonly long lifespan. Olms are known to live around seventy years, with some believed to be up to a century old. This makes them one of the longest-lived animals on the face of the Earth.

Olms have mastered the art of living at the edge of what humans would consider possible, but their strange mixture of traits do not lend themselves to cohabiting with humans. Because of their incredible isolation, human development in areas near caves can obliterate whole olm populations, and their exposed gills get damaged easily by water pollutants (this is actually a very common issue for salamanders as a whole). Since olms get laid only about as frequently as I do, once a population has been damaged, it can take decades for them to recover. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists olms as Vulnerable due to their loss of habitat and weaknesses to pollution, and the Zoological Society of London’s EDGE of Existence, a program designed to protect unique and endangered animals, monitors olms as a focal species. Olms can only live in extremely-clean water, so the presence of an olm in an underground cave can be a sign that the water is safe to drink. As such, protecting the olm has become a major focus by many Croatian researchers, who aim to use the animal’s presence in underground aquifers as a sign that the water is free of industrial pollutants. In Slovenia, Italy, and Bosnia and Herzegovina, however, olms have no legal protections at all, putting them and their habitats at great risk.

I first encountered the olm as a small child, leafing through the oversized pages of Tangerine Press’ Reptile and Amphibian Dictionary. The book was of the kind you’d find at Scholastic book fairs in America, a laminated paperback filled with illustrations and short descriptions of a hundred-odd different animals. Knowing what I do now, that list seems measly considering the over 16,000 species of reptiles and amphibians found on Earth, but at the time the massive diversity of creatures detailed within the book absolutely blew my mind. Within its pages could be found crocodiles, turtles, tortoises, pythons, vipers, salamanders, newts, sirens, legless lizards (which no, are not snakes), tuataras, caecilians, and mudpuppies. I couldn’t believe how many different animals there were, and how differently they all looked from each other.

On page forty, I saw the olm for the first time, long and wormlike and oddly draconic. It was sandwiched right between the Northern Leaf-Tailed Gecko and the Ornate Horned Toad). I was astounded by how odd it was compared even to the other creatures in the book. Sure, the worm lizards and caecilians were weird too, but they looked like earthworms, a type of animal I knew and understood. The olm is a little worm-ish, sure, but it still has arms and legs and a clearly-defined head. It’s a little snake-ish, but once again snakes don’t have limbs. The olm hardly looks like a salamander at all—it’s way too long and scrawny compared to the meaty Hellbender or Tiger Salamander. The olm really just doesn’t resemble any other animal at all, and I found that so charming. In a world where all organisms originate from a common ancestor, there still live creatures that manage to defy the basic rules of how an animal is supposed to look and act. The olm is only one of many which I hope to introduce you to over the course of this blog.

The olm lived in my brain for well over a decade, coming up in conversation when I wanted to impress someone with a weird animal fact (in case you hadn’t guessed, that is the kind of person I am at parties). I’d tell people about this weird salamander that doesn’t have eyes and barely moves and they’d go “oh, a fish that doesn’t move… cool?” Then in 2019, something interesting happened. Hank Green, founder of the Youtube series SciShow and my personal idol, started a project called Bizarre Beasts. Each month, he would tell his audience on the Vlogbrothers Youtube channel about a weird animal that doesn’t get talked about much. He covered the Ocean Sunfish first, then moved on to all sorts of weird creatures that I’d never heard of: the Red Handfish, Pallas’ Cat, the Tree Porcupine, the Portuguese Man-o-War. Eventually, what began as a thing Hank would periodically do turned into its own Youtube channel and pin club to help raise money for charity.

I love just about everything that Hank Green has done (except for Evil Baby Orphanage, that was kind of a dud), but Bizarre Beasts really clicked with me. It showed me that other people out there got as excited about weird animals as I do, and I saw that there was an audience for that kind of project. At first, I campaigned to get Hank Green to cover the olm on Bizarre Beasts (the name of this blog is actually a derivative of my tagline from that project, #considertheolm), but that failed. In attempting to find cool facts to Tweet at Hank, I researched more about the olm, finding out about its light-sensitive skin and electroreceptive abilities. This research led me to EDGE of Existence, a whole catalog of unique animals in need of conservation assistance. I discovered that my beloved olm was in danger of extinction due to pollution and habitat loss, and flipping through the EDGE focal species, I saw so many more animals like the olm, evolutionary misfits, that needed human help.

I realized then that I didn’t have to rely on Hank Green to tell people about my favorite animals—I could do it myself. Like Hank, I could give the project a higher purpose than just giving me an outlet to rant to the world about weird animals. I could use such a project to lift up all bizarre and endangered species in the world, to raise awareness of their plight and educate people about why they’re worth saving. Consider Nature was born.

Knowing about the olm isn’t going to change your life. You aren’t going to make more money or find more friends or even improve your local ecosystem by learning about it. Hell, just about every human on Earth could continue their lives as normal if the olm went extinct—we would never even notice. But the olm still brings me joy. It reminds me that life has no fixed direction, only branching, tangling paths that often find completely different solutions to the same problem. It shows me that the oddest traits in a living thing, like not having eyes or looking really a lot like the unfortunate result of a botched vasectomy, can allow creatures to survive comfortably in the most dire of circumstances.

At the bottom of the world, deep within the winding crags and crevices below the surface of the Earth, there live blind dragons that watch over the darkness, gobbling up worms and snoozing comfortably at the bottoms of forgotten aquifers. They are the ultimate survivors, spending their days using as little energy as possible, waiting for the perfect time to devour their prey with a nearly inescapable strike. They are as old as the dinosaurs, with a body plan and survival technique that has barely changed since the time of Tyrannosaurus rex.With a little bit of help from conservationists and more responsible usage of pollutants, the olms will hopefully continue their lazy way of life for many centuries to come.

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