The Postojna Cave in Slovenia, a karst cave formed from drops of water eroding rock over millions of years, has been harboring a secret since 2016. Hidden away in a subterranean lab, a team of scientists on site has been raising a clutch of “baby dragons” and now, four years since the first hatched, three are going to go on display for the world to see.
The precious dragons are actually olms, ancient aquatic salamanders that breed once a decade and can live to be 100 years old. They were first described in 1689 by naturalist Valvasor who wrote in his book Glory of the Duchy of Carniola that, after heavy rains, olms would wash up from underground water systems and were believed by locals to be dragons' offspring swept out from the cave.
These ghostly creatures are incredibly rare but in 2016 an olm at the cave lay around 60 eggs in an observation tank, offering cave authorities a rare opportunity to protect and study them. Of the 21 eggs which survived, three of these will star in an observation tank open to visitors at the Postojna cave. As very precious residents, cave authorities kept the olms out of sight in their laboratory, but soon a limited number of 30 visitors will be permitted to visit the baby dragons each day as the cave opens its doors to the public.
Little is known of olm breeding in the wild but statistical data indicates that out of the hundreds of eggs laid in a female's lifetime, only two reach adulthood. The team at Postojna was therefore apprehensive as to how their modest clutch would fare. "It was very moving, but also frightening, because we knew all along that something unique was happening and that it was up to us how everything would turn out in the end. We had a huge responsibility as the very things started happening for us that Postojna Cave had been hoping for for centuries," said Katja Dolenc Batagelj, who is in charge of the cave's laboratory, in a statement.
As exclusively cave-dwelling animals, olms are blind, slender, and near-translucent in appearance. They slowly grow legs as they develop. There's a very adorable video on the cave lab’s website showing the proud moment one of the olms named Victor sprouted a new leg. They are a protected species found mostly in Balkan cave rivers and are believed to have been residents in Postojna cave for millions of years.
The Postojna Cave had been closed to visitors for three months due to the Covid-19 pandemic, and the baby dragons’ debut is a fitting celebration for the reopening of this magnificent site of natural beauty.