Olm - Research History

Research History

The olm is supposedly first pictured as two pairs of snakes with wings, which could represent gills, in a relief on a Venetian stone fountain, probably originating from Karst.

The first written mention of the olm is in Janez Vajkard Valvasor's The Glory of the Duchy of Carniola (1689) as a baby dragon. Heavy rains of Slovenia would wash the olms up from their subterranean habitat, giving rise to the folklore belief that great dragons lived beneath the Earth's crust, and the olms were the undeveloped offspring of these mythical beasts. In The Glory of the Duchy of Carniola, Valvasor compiled the local Slovenian folk stories and pieced together the rich mythology of the creature and documented observations of the olm as "Barely a span long, akin to a lizard, in short, a worm and vermin of which there are many hereabouts".

The first researcher to retrieve a live olm was a physician and researcher from Idrija, G.A. Scopoli; he sent dead specimens and drawings to colleagues and collectors. Josephus Nicolaus Laurenti, though, was the first to briefly describe the olm in 1768 and give it the scientific name Proteus anguinus. It was not until the end of the century that Carl Franz Anton Ritter von Schreibers from the Naturhistorisches Museum of Vienna started to look into this animal's anatomy. The specimens were sent to him by Žiga Zois. Schreibers presented his findings in 1801 to The Royal Society in London, and later also in Paris. Soon the olm started to gain wide recognition and attract significant attention, resulting in thousands of animals being sent to researchers and collectors worldwide. The basis of functional morphological investigations in Slovenia was set up by Lili Istenič in the 1980s. More than twenty years later, the Research Group for functional morphological Studies of the Vertebrates in the Department of Biology (Biotechnical Faculty, University of Ljubljana), is one of the leading groups studying the olm under the guidance of Boris Bulog. There are also several cave laboratories in Europe, where olms have been introduced and are being studied. These are Moulis, Ariège (France), Kent's Cavern (England), Han-sur-Lesse (Belgium) and Aggtelek (Hungary). They were also introduced into the Hermannshöhle (Germany) and Oliero (Italy) caves, where they still live today.

The olm was used by Charles Darwin in his famous On the Origin of Species as an example for the reduction of structures through disuse:

Far from feeling surprise that some of the cave-animals should be very anomalous...as is the case with blind Proteus with reference to the reptiles of Europe, I am only surprised that more wrecks of ancient life have not been preserved, owing to the less severe competition to which the scanty inhabitants of these dark abodes will have been exposed.

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