The dragons are coming! The dragons are … oops, too late for that warning … the dragons are here! The eggs of an extremely rare species once considered by Slovenians to be real dragons have begun hatching deep inside Postojna Cave. Now the hard part begins … finding Papa Dragon to light the cigars? No, feeding and caring for them for the 700,000-plus tourists who trek annually to the entertainment complex that’s based around their existence.
The “baby dragons,” also called “human fish,” are actually extremely rare salamanders known as olms (Proteus anguinus), an ancient and mysterious blind species that can live for a century, only breeds once in a decade, takes 15 years to reach its mature length of 35 cm (a 13.5 inch dragon?) and can survive ten years without eating. The “human fish” nickname comes from its pale, almost translucent skin and its hand-like limbs. The “dragon” reputation is another story.
After their discovery in the 1600s when they were flushed out by rains from Postojna and other caves, Slovenian researcher Janez Vajkard Valvasor described them as baby dragons that were being washed out to sea where they’d grow, live, kidnap princesses and attack knights. Although scientists in the 1800s identified the olms as salamanders, the name and some true believers still exist today.
Postojna Cave is one of the last bastions of olms and both a research and entertainment facility have developed around them. Tourists can visit the nearby Predjama Castle, walk through the second-longest cave in Slovenia and visit the olms in the aquarium designed especially for them. That’s where 60 eggs were laid four months ago and 23 larvae were seen developing though the transparent egg shells.
The larva broke the envelope in one sudden swift movement and quickly swam towards the surface, disappearing from the screen after a few moments. Then it calmed down and came down to the bottom.
Katja Batagelj, the managing director of the Postojna Cave, says the first baby olm hatched on May 30th and a second hatched two days later. As of this writing, the rest are still under hatch watch. The babies as well as the rest of the eggs are separated from the adults to keep them safe. That means humans will spend the next 15 years nursing the baby dragons to maturity. Fortunately, there are lot of excited scientists and volunteers lining up for the job, according to researcher Dr. David Green:
Because they are endangered, understanding more about their life history allows people to plan and figure out how to keep them going. You can’t protect an organism very well if you don’t understand what it’s doing.
Send your resumes to Postojna Cave Park. No dragon slaying experience required.