A team of biologists and divers have come upon a strange amphibian called the olm in an underground lake at 113 meters underwater.
Olms are fascinating little beings. The first mention we'll find of olms in literature dates back to the year 1689. Johann Weikhard von Valvasor wrote in the book The Glory of the Duchy of Carniola that olms were baby dragons. There was a folk belief in Slovenia that dragons lived underground. Whenever it rained, olms would wash up from their underground habitats up to the surface. Thus, people believed that the amphibious salamanders were the offspring of underground dragons.
While this is certainly an interesting story, olms aren't the offspring of great mythical beasts. They're salamanders that live in cave waters, away from sunlight. Thus, they've lost use of their eyes and are effectively blind. Their skin is also pale and pinkish, which prompted the moniker “human fish” because their skin reminded Europeans of their own skin color.
Olms can also live for up to a century and have low metabolic rates. Other than all this, however, we don't know much else about olms. Unfortunately, biologists may be running out of time to find out more about the salamanders. For one thing, it can be quite difficult to observe olms in their natural habitat. Scientists would need to learn how to cave dive, which can be complicated and dangerous.
As if that's not enough of a difficulty, olm habitats are also in danger. Pollution from human activities on the surface is seeping down to olm habitats.
The good news is that scientists have found five new olm habitats over the course of six years. Scientists found several olm specimens at record depths in the underground lake Zagorska pec in Croatia. It was at this lake that the researchers were able to discover a number of pieces of key information about olms.
Researchers found that the depth of the water isn't a stress factor for the salamanders. It also became evident that olms preferred spots around the cave that had a slower water flow or a larger amount of sediment. These spots seem to be less stressful for the olms.
It's possible that olms can live at even further depths than the current record. Studying the olms at these deeper waters can be beneficial to conservation efforts. However, this may depend on how deep human divers can go. Of course, there's always the possibility of taking advantage of technological advancements to augment human abilities.
New technology can help scientists collect trace DNA from streams on the surface of the water. Other scientists, meanwhile, aim to learn more about how olms reproduce. With this information, scientists can develop a captive breeding population.
It may also be beneficial to learn about the population distribution of olms in each underground lake. Some lakes have very few specimens, while specimens in other lakes can number in the hundreds. There are also lakes that don't have any olms. Scientists aim to understand why some lakes have hundreds of olms, some have just one, and some have none at all.
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