Our directory of things of interest

University Directory

‘Baby dragon’ birth captured on video

  • Written by  Estelle Hakner
  • Published in Wildlife
Proteus anguinus baby Proteus anguinus baby Alex_Hyde
03 Jun
2016
The wait is over for biologists at Slovenia’s Postojna Cave as their first ‘baby dragon’ or ‘human fish’ is born, giving a rare snapshot into the strange and little-known world of this bizarre amphibian

The olm (Proteus anguinus) is a blind, salamander-like creature with pale skin and protruding gills, which lives entirely underwater in the cave systems of Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina. It is Europe’s only fully subterranean vertebrate, and the world’s largest cave-dwelling animal.

Its penchant for complete darkness means that, up until now, virtually nothing has been documented about its reproductive processes, and knowledge about how to conserve the species through its development is relatively limited.

Here comes the second baby dragon photo by Iztok Medja Postojnska jamaPostojna CaveThe second baby dragon hatches (Image: Iztok Medja Postojnska)

But the waters of the Pivka River that flow through the karst cave aquarium have proven a suitable nursery for an estimated 4,000 olms, and infrared technology has opened up the world of the enigmatic salamander for the first time.

On Monday (30 May) at 10.48am, four months after the aquarium’s female olms excited scientists by laying eggs in captivity, the long-awaited hatching took place, caught on infrared camera and shared with the public via a live feed. On Friday 3 June, a second baby was hatched.

Dr. Lilijana Bizjak Mali, from the Biotechnical Faculty at the University of Ljubljana, said: ‘The significance is not that it is the first time that proteus has laid eggs in captivity, but that this happened in a large exhibition aquarium in a major world-renowned tourist cave, and that it was successful.’

The rare footage shows the olm larva easily breaking free of its jelly-like capsule, before swimming energetically and settling on the aquarium floor.

Dr. Mali and Dr. Stanley K. Sessions from Hartwick College, New York, had previously never seen proteus embryos, and found crucial differences to the development of other amphibians when studying them under a microscope.

Dr. Stanley said: ‘While vulnerable to fungus, proteus embryos are quite resilient and not as sensitive to noise, light and other disturbances as previously believed. However, it is paramount that they are kept in a clean environment. One of the important developmental traits of proteus is that hind limb development is delayed in relation to the forelimb. We think this may explain the reduction in number of fingers and toes.’

022 Proteus Anguinus Adult Alex Hyde Postojna Cave.JPG Hello its me copyProteus anguinus adult (Image: Alex Hyde)

Their research highlighted a unique chromosomal translocation in the proteus that explains why high numbers of them display testis-ova or hermaphroditism.

With this new data, scientists at the Postojna Cave hope to develop a breeding programme to further understand other genetic adaptations within the cave-dwelling species, such as its elongated snout and unseeing eyes.

It is hoped that the hatching will increase awareness about the environmental issues affecting wild proteus, such as pollution and habitat destruction.

Saso Weldt, a biologist at the Postojna Cave, said: ‘This is one more stone in resolving the puzzle of olm reproduction in nature. Perhaps, in the future, it will be possible to find eggs and young larvae of olms in nature. So far, nobody has ever seen proteus laying eggs or hatching larvae in nature.’

Related items

Subscribe to Geographical!

geo line break v3

Free eBooks - Geographical Newsletter

Sign up for our weekly newsletter today and get a FREE eBook collection!

geo line break v3

University of Winchester

geo line break v3

EDUCATION PARTNERS

Aberystwyth University University of Greenwich The University of Derby

TRAVEL PARTNERS

Ponant

Silversea

Travel the Unknown

DOSSIERS

Like longer reads? Try our in-depth dossiers that provide a comprehensive view of each topic

  • Natural Capital: Putting a price on nature
    Natural capital is a way to quantify the value of the world that nature provides for us – the air, soils, water, even recreational activity. Advocat...
    The human game – tackling football’s ‘slave trade’
    Few would argue with football’s position as the world’s number one sport. But as Mark Rowe discovers, this global popularity is masking a sinister...
    Essential oil?
    Palm oil is omnipresent in global consumption. But in many circles it is considered the scourge of the natural world, for the deforestation and habita...
    The green dragon awakens
    China has achieved remarkable economic success following the principle of developing first and cleaning up later. But now the country with the world's...
    Hung out to dry
    Wetlands are vital storehouses of biodiversity and important bulwarks against the effects of climate change, while also providing livelihoods for mill...

MORE DOSSIERS

NEVER MISS A STORY - Follow Geographical on Social

Want to stay up to date with breaking Geographical stories? Join the thousands following us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and stay informed about the world.

More articles in NATURE...

Wildlife

Exciting news for wildlife and photography enthusiasts alike – the…

Wildlife

A new system of robotic aerial vehicles is revolutionising the…

Wildlife

Technology used in creating safe urban environments is now being…

Climate

Brazil’s shift to the right of the political spectrum could…

Wildlife

Laura Cole travels to Orkney to find out why numbers…

Wildlife

The unprecedented frequency of winter tick epidemics have resulted in…

Oceans

Ocean debris, mostly composed of plastic, reaches remote Atlantic islands…

Geophoto

With motion detectors becoming ever more sophisticated, and clearer, crisper…

Nature

Natural capital is a way to quantify the value of…

Tectonics

The reason for the unusual location of Mount St Helens…

Climate

Most plants thicken their leaves in response to higher carbon…

Climate

Not just the preserve of flatulent cows, methane is causing…

Climate

As the United States’ Supreme Court delays a landmark climate…

Geophoto

Of Britain's 15 national parks, the New Forest is probably…

Energy

The Treasury has announced that it is considering imposing a…

Tectonics

Major earthquakes are triggering seismic activity half the world away

Climate

Marco Magrini finds that a warming world also means a…

Wildlife

Unchecked tourism is potentially reducing the number of cheetah cubs that…

Oceans

A relocated military base in Okinawa, Japan will cause ‘irreversible’…

Climate

The ongoing recovery of the planet’s ozone layer is being…