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Saving a 'baby dragon'

Enrique GiliMarch 22, 2016

Polar bears and pandas are the poster children for conservation. But not all creatures worth saving are cute and charismatic and that includes the Balkan's fabled 'baby dragon.'

Photo of an olm underwater on a rock.
Image: Dušan Jelić

If you take a trip to the fairy tale countryside of Croatia and scramble along the dank passages of a cave, you might encounter a creature of legend - the so-called baby dragon of the Balkans.

Perhaps right now, you're imagining the winged, fire-breathing dragons in the hit TV show "Game of Thrones" but the creature in question, the olm, is, in fact, a somewhat-less terrifying salamander. The blind, flesh-colored animal is no less fascinating though and the discovery of 55 olm eggs in an aquarium at the Postojna Cave Park in neighboring Slovenia recently captured the attention of media and scientists around the world.

That's because little is known about the true nature of these mysterious and alien-like creatures, despite them being an object of fascination since the Middle Ages for the people of the Balkans. In Croatian folklore, for instance, the olm earned its reputation as the lost offspring of dragons, owing to its serpentine body and wide head, framed by frilly gills. Legend has it, they were ejected from their parents' underground lairs when heavy rains would flush them to the surface.

Fairy tales aside, the species remained understudied until the latter half of the 19th century and the lack of systematic information about their lives in the wild concerns conservationists. The olm is listed as vulnerable and in decline by the #link:http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/18377/0:International Union for the Conservation of Nature# (IUCN). While the exact size of the olm population is unknown, their habitat is under threat from pollution and changes in land use patterns. It's a situation reflected among amphibians worldwide, which are fading from the landscape at a rate that could result in the loss of 50 percent of the species by 2050.

Dusan Jelic, a conservation biologist at the #link:http://www.hibr.hr/:Croatian Institute for Biodiversity#, who investigates their hidden world, believes their value as a keystone species extends well beyond old legends. He asserts their well-being is intimately tied to the overall health of the country.

"We have an old saying: If the water is good for the salamander, the water is definitely good for drinking," said Jelic, who hopes his adventurous subterranean research can contribute to their conservation.

Photo of a diver with an olm
Studying olms often requires researchers to be quite adventurous as they need to climb and dive through extensive underground cave systems to find their research subjectsImage: PROTEUS/Vedran Jalžić

Into the deep

The olm lives underground in a geographic region known as Dinaric Arc, a biological hotspot in southern Europe, encompassing the Balkan states of the former Yugoslavia and a small sliver of Italy. Its habitat consists of a series of maze-like caves that remain largely unmapped and unexplored, due to their inaccessibility. The olm navigates its dark world thanks to its acute sense of hearing and a sixth sense, much like sharks, used to detect a change in electromagnetic fields.

Until recently, it was almost impossible for humans to observe olms in their natural environment, but advances in technology allow researchers like Jelic to learn more by combining science with extreme sports. To explore cave ecosystems, a scientist has to be equally comfortable with heights as they are with tight crawl spaces and submerged passageways.

"We are finding new ways to go into the deep and gather data using specialized cave-diving equipment allowing us up to eight hours of diving," Jelic explains.

His team's most ambitious research expedition to date took him 1400 meters below the surface of Croatia's Krka National Park in a dangerous game of chutes and ladders done in the name of science to reach an unexplored subterranean river.

"It took four weeks and 60 men to get the equipment down there, just for two divers to dive at the end. We have permanent monitoring in Krka National Park," said Jelic, who uses such dives to monitor olm populations and look out for signs of pollution - a major concern for conservationists.

Photo of two olms side by side.
Olms have a strong tails used for swimming. Their legs on the other hand are small. They have both lungs and external gillsImage: gemeinfrei

Pollution problems

In Croatia, for example, underground aquifers provide much of the nation's water supply. Pumped to the surface for agricultural purposes and human consumption, contaminated water returns to the karst cave systems via gravity. According to Jelic, Croatia's fabled old world cities and countryside villages also still rely on antiquated plumbing and sewage systems to get the job done, meaning untreated water flows out into the environment with potentially disastrous consequences for the olm.

Small quantities of organic material are beneficial for the food web, "but as soon as you push it a little bit over the edge, it goes into an anoxic state and everything dies," said Jelic.

His overriding concern is that increased demands placed on the nation's water supply will further degrade the olm's habitat. Careless construction, dams and deforestation take a toll on water quality, thereby, decreasing the amount of habitat available to the species. "We have more pollution than ever," Jelic said.

However, not all the news is grim, in 2013 Croatia gained admission into the European Union and joined Europe's Natura 2000 network, which aims to preserve the continent's biological diversity and distinct habitats. In doing so, Croatia proposed to include 11 species, including the olm, and two habitat types specific to the karst cave systems, in recognition of their value as biological hotspots. It appears to be having some positive impact on the animal.

"Quite recently, we had a case with the Ombla cave system (south Croatia) where we provided evidence that the hydropower plant that was supposed to be built would have a significant impact on olm and cave fish, so it was finally rejected," said Jelic.

Foto of two lakes surrounded by forest in Plitvice Lakes National Park in Croatia.
Plitvice Lakes National Park in Croatia is an enchanting place and one of the places where the elusive olm can be foundImage: picture alliance/PIXSELL/B. Filic

A cabinet of curiosities

Still, despite this minor victory for the olm, the aquatic salamander suffers from the same problem as many of the lesser known and less photogenic species, in that it fails to capture the public imagination in the way a cute panda or lion cub would. So conservation is less straightforward than for charismatic megafauna.

But the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) has sounded the alarm that many species besides charismatic megafauna require additional protection and the olm is among them.

"If we were to lose them, there's literally nothing quite like the olm on Earth," said Nisha Owen, manager for the #link:http://www.edgeofexistence.org/amphibians/species_info.php?id=563:Edge of Existence# (EDGE) program, which calls attention to vulnerable species outside the media spotlight. The odd and the genetically isolated are among the criteria to join the program's "Top 100" of the most vulnerable species. The olm is 19th on the list for amphibians, ranked among other curiosities such as the Chinese giant salamander, Mexican axolotl, and the lungless salamander.

The conservation organization also funds the research of scientists like Jelic, whose passion for the species that they study and the ecosystems that they inhabit is obvious. He's been hooked on the olm since childhood and believes raising awareness is crucial to conservation efforts.

"At least if you have people thinking about a species and the challenges that they face, then you can move toward finding solutions," he said.