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Monster Alert!

Baby “dragons” were born this summer in a cave in Europe.

By Jennifer Marino Walters

22 babies hatched from eggs laid by this mother “dragon." Image credit Iztok Medja for Postojna Cave.

This summer, a cave in Central Europe got a lot of attention when it became home to more than two dozen baby dragons. These amphibians (animals that begin life in the water and move onto land as adults) are actually called olms. An olm is a type of salamander that looks like a dragon, which is how it got its nickname. The birth of these creatures is an extremely rare event.

A female olm might lay eggs just once every six years. Excitement over the possibility of new babies started in January, when the first egg was spotted deep within the Postojna (post-oy-nah) Cave in Slovenia. In the end, with the help of scientists, 22 olms were born between May 30 and July 14. They are now growing into healthy teenage dragons.

CAVE CREATURES

Olms live in underwater limestone caves in Central Europe. These caves are difficult to reach, so scientists don’t often get to observe olms in their natural habitat (place where an animal is usually found). “The fact that they are so mysterious makes them even more intriguing,” Sabina Paternost, a spokesperson for the researchers at Postojna Cave, told Scholastic News Online.

Olms, which can grow to be up to 16 inches long, are one of the largest cave animals in the world. They have pale skin and long snouts, and their tiny eyes are fully covered with skin. No natural light reaches these deep caves, so many animals that live there cannot see. But olms have other special skills that make it possible for them to survive in their deep, underwater environment. They use their incredible senses of smell and hearing to hunt worms, crabs, and snails. Olms can also survive without food for long periods of time, even as long as 10 years.

BEATING THE ODDS

When a female olm laid 64 eggs in the Postojna Cave last winter, scientists estimated that only two or three of them would survive. In the wild, only about two baby olms successfully hatch from 500 eggs. The last time a female olm laid eggs at Postojna Cave, none of the eggs hatched. So this time, scientists worked very hard to care for the olm eggs and watched over them as they grew. About one-third of the 64 baby olms survived, and they appear to be doing well.

Scientists are hopeful about the babies’ future. Although olm larvae don’t eat for the first couple of months, by August three of the oldest babies were eating worms. That was an important step in their development. Now they are moving into the next stage of their lives—with help from the team at Postojna Cave.

“The statistics often do not speak in olms’ favor,” a press statement for the team stated. “[But] we will keep doing everything we possibly can to ensure the olms’ well-being.”

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