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Meet the rare "baby dragon" salamanders from Slovenia


The "baby dragon" or proteos are a species of salamander that lives only in the Postojna cave of Slovenia.

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Underground attraction: Located an hour's drive southwest of Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, the Postojna cave network is the only place in the world to find the olm, or proteus anguinus, by its Latin name.

Credit: Jure Makovec / AFP / Getty Images

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Baby Dragons - These tiny creatures are about 10 inches tall and can live up to 100 years.

An olm is seen here in the famous cave in April 2016. Credit: Jure Makovec / AFP / Getty Images

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Strange Creatures: Olms are also often referred to as “human fish” as, although they live underwater, they have smooth, white and pink skin instead of scales, and limbs with cartoon-like fingers under their red gills.

Credit: Jure Makovec / AFP / Getty Images

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Natural splendor: Cave visitors often witness “baby dragons” swim among the rocks in an aquarium.

Credit: Jure Makovec / AFP / Getty Images

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Vulnerable species: According to Primož Gnezda, a biologist who has studied olms, they must be kept at around 13 degrees Clesius to survive.

Credit: Jure Makovec / AFP / Getty Images

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Cavern Vertebrate: Gnezda releases a young elm into the underground aquarium of Postojna Cave, Slovenia, in June 2020. Credit: Jure Makovec / AFP / Getty Images

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Carnivorous diet: "We feed them worms," ​​says Gnezda.

"The worms form a little ball together in the water and the olms come and suck it up whole like a vacuum cleaner."

Credit: Jure Makovec / AFP / Getty Images

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Unusual Habits: Gnezda says that "baby dragons" sometimes "eat so violently that worms can be seen coming out of their gills along with the water."

Credit: Borut Zivulovic / Reuters

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Notable Abilities: "Their power of regeneration is amazing. If they lose a limb, it grows back," adds Gnezda.

Credit: Jure Makovec / AFP / Getty Images

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Extensive Research: Biologist Katarina Kanduc studies containers with young olms in the cave's nursery, which leads to the lab where scientists are licensed to keep 10 olms for research.

Credit: Jure Makovec / AFP / Getty Images

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Natural landmark: Postojna Cave has a 24-kilometer network of underground chambers and tunnels and reaches a depth of 115 meters.

An underground train travels two kilometers inside the caves.

Credit: Jure Makovec / AFP / Getty Images

(CNN) -

Postojna Cave, located an hour's drive southwest of Ljubljana, the Slovenian capital, is so large that it has its own railway.

However, one of the cave's main attractions is something at the other end of the size spectrum, which is completely unique to Postojna.

They are the "baby dragon" or proteos.

Postojna is, in normal travel times, one of the most visited underground attractions in Europe.

The locals have known it for centuries and the graffiti, dated 1213, prove it.

Tourists began to arrive in large numbers after the inaugural visit in 1818 by Francis I of Austria, the last Holy Roman Emperor.

Some 35 million have followed in his footsteps.

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Is easy to see why.

The cave is so large that a small train travels the first two of its 24 kilometers of network of chambers and underground tunnels.


The train line ends at the huge Congress Hall where the Milan Symphony Orchestra performed in 1930. From there, a trail cuts through six geological strata, crosses a bridge over a canyon built by Russian prisoners during WWI, and continues between cliffs and underground gorges, spaghetti-thin stalactites and speleothem curtains.

The route, which reaches a depth of 115 meters, sometimes leads visitors through slits barely one meter wide.

However, the real adrenaline rush is reserved for coming face to face with the strange creatures found in the Postojna cave system and nowhere else on Earth.

Blind salamanders

Protei grow up to 25 centimeters in length.

Courtesy of Postojna Cave D. D

Protea, also called olms, are blind salamanders about 25 centimeters in length that never develop beyond their juvenile and aquatic phase.

The locals nicknamed them "dragon hatchlings" because they were washed out of Postojna during the floods and since the caves are the home of dragons, surely these were their hatchlings, right?

Today, visitors can find them swimming among the rocks in a purpose-built aquarium deep within the cave.

"Aren't they precious?" Asks Mateja Rosa, a huge Protean fan who works as the head of marketing and public relations for Postojna.

Location of Postojna cave in Slovenia, the only place where the proteos inhabit.

And so it is.

With an almost toy-like appearance, they are also sometimes called human fish because, despite living underwater, they have pinkish-white skin rather than scales, and their limbs feature cartoon-like fingers underneath their red gills.

They may be blind, but the Proteans seem to hear approaching visitors, and are apparently sensitive to vibrations.

One of them even sticks to the glass tank near where my face peeks out.

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Is it curiosity?

Is friendly?

No, according to Primož Gnezda, a young and enthusiastic biologist who has been studying these creatures for years.

"The proteans in the cave tank hear you, they freak out and adopt their positions of safety," says Gnezda during a visit to the Vivarium, an exhibition space next to the cave that displays more proteans and a host of other Postojna creatures.

The seemingly friendly Proteus is known for his unusual demeanor, but he wasn't being outgoing.

"They always stick against the glass for safety," says Gnezda.

"That it appeared next to your face was a mere coincidence."

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good manners

Visitors can observe proteos or olms in an aquarium.

Credit: Jure Makovec / AFP / Getty Images

According to Rosa, protei can live up to 100 years and can survive long periods without food.

"Seven years for sure," he says.

"During the first two or three years, there is no problem. Then they start to lose weight, stop moving and just wait for the prey to pass. If more than seven years pass, some may die, others may survive, depending on the situation. metabolism of the individual ".

When they find food, we can forgive their manners.

"We feed them worms," ​​says Gnezda.

"The worms form a little ball in the water and the protei come and suck it up whole like a vacuum cleaner. Sometimes they eat so violently that you can see the worms coming out of their gills along with the water."

The nursery leads to the laboratory, where scientists are licensed to keep 10 olms for research.

A lot of money is spent on these creatures.

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"Biologists have investigated its DNA," says Gnezda.

"Its genome is like a novel. It is 16 times longer than human and more complicated."

"They also have a lot of empty spaces. We don't know why they exist. Imagine a 600-page book, where all the words are scrambled and we must reconstruct the story."

Is there a reason for us to be so interested?

"Their power of regeneration is incredible. If they lose a limb, it grows back. The idea of ​​the investigation is to find out the mechanism behind it."

"Not to have their arm or leg grow back, but to produce a new human hand or leg from their own cells within a laboratory and then graft them. That is, of course, very, very far in the world. future".

Mating dance

Protea can live up to 100 years.

Credit: Jure Makovec / AFP / Getty Images

Since proteos are cute, they don't need to be fed and will likely outlive you, Rosa says that in the past they were sometimes given as pets to visiting dignitaries.

"Most died," he adds.

"The proteos should be kept at around 13 ° C. If the temperature rises quickly, for example from 10 ° C to 15 ° C, it kills them."

Salamanders start life in water, like olms, but then their gills fall off, develop lungs, walk on land, and become sexually mature;

however, protei remain and multiply in the juvenile stage, a biological rarity like their close relative, the Mexican axolotl.

The olms even have a mating dance.

"It's like this," says Gnezda.

"When the female is ready, she walks up to the male. When he smells her, he will start swimming in front of her; she will follow him and they will do a few circles together."

"At one point, the male will leave a packet of semen on the ground. She will pick it up and put it in a pocket inside her. When an egg comes out, it will fertilize itself."

And that's not all.

"You can't tell if an olm is male or female from their DNA. Both the male and the female have the same chromosomes. We are now trying to distinguish between the sexes by analyzing their blood and checking the hormonal ratios. It looks promising, but still is. an ongoing investigation. "

Dragon hatching

The biologist Primož Gnezda is one of the scientists who study the proteas.

Credit: Jure Makovec / AFP / Getty Images

And now the big announcement.

On January 30, 2016, a female began to feel very territorial and would attack the other proteans if they approached her;

To the delight of the researchers, they saw that he was saving an egg.

She immediately withdrew her companions and her tank was isolated.

Infrared cameras revealed that it continued to lay eggs for another eight weeks.

"In the end it produced 64 eggs," says Gnezda.

"In nature, the mother sticks the eggs on the rocks, since there is no real predator in the cave."

"But a lot can go wrong while the egg is developing and about two-thirds of the hatchlings die on their own."

Exactly four months after the first egg was laid, the first baby dragon was born.

It shot out, fell to the bottom of the aquarium and swam prematurely.

In total, 21 survived. Interestingly, they are born with eyes that they keep for several years until the skin grows over them and leaves them blind.

And since June 2021, two of those five-year-old proteans have been on display.

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As Gnezda reveals during a visit to the vivarium, they are not the only unusual occupant of Postojna.

There are cave crickets that will eat their own limbs if they cannot find food;

poisonous cave millipedes;

fine-necked beetles whose wings have been stunted and fused on their abdomen;

cave shrimp, the olms' favorite snack;

and the obligatory spooky spider: Since there are no flying insects inside the cave, the spiders use their silk to weave cocoons instead of cobwebs.

Speaking of food, when olms were washed into rivers by flooding, did they ever end up on someone's plate?

Yes, says Rosa.

"Until the 1980s they were available in the fish markets of Trieste."


"They taste like squid without flavor. Or so they told me."


Source: cnnespanol

All news articles on 2021-12-03

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