Stories: THE OLM
Olms (Proteus Anguinus) are elusive cave-dwelling salamanders and the largest of the world's cave-dwelling animals. They live in the karstic underground of the Dinaric Alps, a mountain range that starts in Italy and runs southeast through Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, and Albania. Scientists have been studying them for over 60 years, but due to limited funding, these “human fish” as they are called in Slovenian are still rather unresearched. They can grow to about 30 centimetres. It is believed that they can live up to a hundred years, and have been proven to go without moving or eating for years with no significant physiological consequences. They are blind but highly sensitive to light, sound, vibration etc. They have special skin receptors that help them sense Earth’s magnetic field and changes in the electrical fields of other organisms. They breed every 12 years. They are officially marked as vulnerable, but scientists estimate that they are far more endangered than presently supposed. Especially the olm’s subspecies known as the black olm (Proteus Anguinus Parkelj) only live in a 5 square kilometre territory of Bela Krajina region in Slovenia and has not yet been found anywhere else in the world. There are currently two cave labs in Slovenia where olms are studied. One of them, the older, run by top experts on olms, is also a sanctuary, where olms are taken after they are found injured outside their caves. They are treated and healed in the lab and then released back into their caves. Olm medicine is still a guessing game, but scientists have been cooperating globally to figure out everything about this animal. In 2019, the University of Ljubljana together with its partners in Denmark and China finished sequencing the olm's genome. It is the largest animal genome yet mapped. In the long run, decoding the olm's slower metabolism, limb regeneration, and negligible signs of ageing could, in theory, help humans.