A clutch of “baby dragon” eggs will soon hatch in a dark eastern European cave called Postojna.
But they’re not really baby dragon eggs. The slithery, bizarre, and ancient blind salamanders called olms have been called baby dragons thanks to the very active Slovenian imagination.
Biologist Sašo Weldt told ABC News that the Slovenian people only noticed them, or recorded that they did, in the 17th century, although the olms have been around for at least 15 million years. The baby dragon was first glimpsed when they washed up from underground rivers after a heavy rain.
“People had never seen it and didn’t know what it was. During the winter time, clouds of fog often rose from the cave, so they came up with stories of a dragon breathing fire from the cave, and they thought the olms were its babies.”
The “baby dragon” nickname stuck. And although the olm doesn’t look very intimidating or fantastical, they do have some strange features that make them rather otherworldly.
They can live up 100 years, scientists believe, and they can go a decade without eating any food. The female “baby dragon” reproduces once every six to seven years, the birth of their babies only seen by human eyes once before in a lab. And the olm has a distinctly creepy physical appearance and uncanny abilities.
“They have transparent white skin that also covers their eyes, but they don’t need to see. They have incredible sense of smell and hearing and can detect detect light and electrical or magnetic fields … The eggs have a smell, so she can recognise which are alive and which are dead. And because food is so scarce in the cave system, she eats the ones that are not fertilized.”
The only cave vertebrate in Europe, the “baby dragon” lives in labyrinthine systems called karst caves, which are made when water eats through soluble rock. It has lived in this subterranean home for millennia.
“For 200 million years they were in an environment that didn’t change,” Dr. Dusan Jelic, from the Zoological Society of London, told BBC News.
And that means the Slovenian “baby dragon” is so well adapted to its environment that even the smallest change can prove dangerous for the creature and its babies. Here, water quality and temperature stay the same — even the seasons don’t change.
The “baby dragons'” offspring are also usually elusive.
“In the wild, we never find eggs or larvae. They are probably hidden within some very specific localities within the cave systems.”
This Slovenian cave, therefore, is witnessing something unprecedented and special. The olm mother laid her eggs at Postojna’s aquarium, where thousands of tourists pass through every year. Not only do scientists get to witness something they’ve never seen before in the wild, but the public can watch, too — at a safe distance.
A tour guide noticed a new “baby dragon” egg at the end of January, and since then, the female olm has laid one to two more every day. They need 120 days to hatch, but that’s just an estimate based on data from the 1950s, when olms hatched in a lab with slightly warmer water. It’s colder in this Slovenian cave, so the birth may take longer. Cameras with infrared light have been set up so tourists can watch the “baby dragon” and her offspring.
The conditions have been perfected so that nothing can stand in the way of this amazing natural event. Eggs were discovered in 2013, but they were eaten before they could hatch. This time, all of the other olms have been ushered out of the area, and the Slovenian aquarium has been boarded up to protect the clutch from light. Extra oxygen has also been pumped in.
Now, scientists and tourists just have to wait the estimated three or four months for the “baby dragon” eggs to hatch. Slovenian biologist Primoz Gnezda, who works at the site, is pretty nervous.
“This is very cool — it is quite extraordinary. But also, we are quite scared that something will go wrong, because the eggs are very sensitive.”
[Image via Arne Hodalič/Wikimedia Commons]