Creature of the Week #5: The Olm

What, you didn’t catch the last fourteen creatures of the week? They were stealthy, ninja-like creatures, beneath the reckoning of the lugubrious internet.

…Okay, I was finishing Lance of Earth and Sky, in addition to work and blah blah blah blah, so there was a bit of a creature pileup. But it’s back, and better than ever! Thank you to those (surprisingly many of you) who emailed or messaged asking when the next one would be. <3

This week’s creature was chosen by the World of Andovar! You wanted it, you got it! The race was a close one, but “Something from Down Below the Earth” edged out “Something from the Sky” by two votes. So, this week, meet the mighty Olm!

As you can see, a photograph of the olm (Proteus anguinus), a blind cave-dwelling amphibian from southeastern Europe, could easily be mistaken for a sighting of Falcor, the dragon from the Never-Ending Story (the film anyway; if you haven’t read the book, you really should, it’s wonderful!). In Slovenia, when flash flooding from rains would fill the caves and wash helpless olms (also appropriately called “white salamanders”) to the surface, people thought that they were baby dragons.

Olms are troglobites: they live exclusively underground and have adapted to completely dark environments, in the olm’s case to the point of getting rid of eyes entirely. Most troglobites are spiders, fish, and insects; in addition to being unusual as an amphibian troglobite, the olm is an unusual amphibian in that it is exclusively aquatic. With its pink external gills and stubby almost useless legs (it has only ten toes on its entire body; six in front, four in back), it spends its entire life in underground pools (making it also a stygobite, a sub-class of troglobite that is aquatic).

The study of cave biology in western culture is relatively recent, but still fast-growing, and, like creatures that live in the deep sea, valuable in that it broadens our standards for the environmental conditions that can sustain life. The phenomenal pressure and coldness of the deep sea was for centuries thought to be empty and sterile, but chemosynthetic life and ecosystems thrive around hot vents in the earth’s crust. Similarly, one of the most recent expansions to our ‘standard’ for habitable environments comes from chemosynthetic cave life. In Romania, not far from the olm’s habitat, there is a cave called Pe┼čtera Movile (“Movile Cave”), discovered in 1986, containing life that has been separated from the rest of the earth for the last 5.5million years — an underground Galapagos! And because there was CO2 and hydrogen sulfide, but almost no oxygen, the life there — all 48 species of it — is chemosynthetic.

The discovery of chemosynthetic life, and species that exist and thrive in environments we mammals can’t imagine, has fueled speculation that there may well be life within our solar system, beneath the ice of Europa or, most recently making the news, in recently-discovered flowing liquid saltwater on Mars.

One of my favorite fictional explorations of this expanding-boundary expression of biology is Michael Swanwick’s “Slow Life”, which, because it was nominated for (and later won) the Hugo in 2002, you can read on Analog’s website (or in his superb collection The Dog Said Bow-Wow. Looking at the olm, ghostly subterranean dragon, it isn’t hard to imagine that life can be stranger than our wildest alien expectations.