In the depths of an ancient Slovenian cave, a baby dragon has just been born. The tiny “olm,” as it is technically referred to, was filmed hatching from its egg this week, marking the first time such an event was captured on camera.
The new mother is a species of blind salamander, once considered to be the offspring of legendary wyrms. This February, it was seen laying an entire cluster of eggs, a rare sight considering they only reproduce once or twice a decade. As of May 30, exactly four months after this female’s 64 eggs appeared, one of them has hatched into a healthy little dragon. A certain white-haired Targaryen would be proud.
The carefully photographed silhouette of the new baby. Iztok Medja/Postojnska jama
The baby shot out of its embryonic envelope and swam excitedly around the carefully monitored incubation aquarium before settling at the bottom, which surprised researchers. The scientific literature often tells of baby olms struggling to escape the egg wall, and it normally takes them several attempts. Either way, this little critter will soon need to be fed, as it does not technically live in its natural environment where it could thrive independently. Instead, it lives in a carefully monitored aquarium within the cave itself.
The hatching as it happened. Iztok Medja/Postojnska jama
Out of the original batch of eggs, the researchers think that at least 22 of them are likely to also hatch, and they are being closely observed. If they do, a small aquatic nursery will have to be set up to make sure they have continual access to fresh, pathogen-free water, as well as a food supply.
“If all goes well, the baby dragons will grow into adults,” the Postojna Cave staff told IFLScience. “Although they may not breathe fire, this will be the right time for the fireworks!”
Another of the eggs waiting to hatch. Iztok Medja/Postojnska jama
These amphibians are the only exclusive cave-dwelling vertebrates in Europe, and their evolutionary lineage, which stretches back 200 million years, has adapted to a mostly constant set of environmental conditions. Any slight deviations from what they’re used to can kill them, so scientists at the site are doing everything they can to protect the new mother during this highly precarious time.
It almost goes without saying that the initial appearance of a clutch of eggs within the maze-like Slovenian cave system was heralded as a truly remarkable event by biologists. These reclusive salamanders live for around a century, but tend to infrequently reproduce with little success – only one in every 250 eggs successfully hatch. Both moderately powerful light sources and incremental changes to their aquatic environment’s chemistry damage the eggs, which is why a special aquarium has been set up to nurture them.
The Postojna cave system. Iztok Medja/Postojnska jama
Based on a captive olm colony in France, biologists thought that the eggs would take 120 days – about four months – to hatch. Despite suggestions that the somewhat colder water in the Postojna cave system would delay hatching, the appearance of the very first baby olm did indeed take place precisely four months after the eggs were laid.
A successful multiple hatching event will be considered an enormous boon for the endangered species, whose habitats are becoming increasingly difficult to live in thanks to human encroachment and proliferating pollution. Any eggs that hatch will no doubt also be welcomed by the mother, but those that lose their viability, as detected by her acute sense of smell, will be consumed as a rather convenient food source.