Protecting the Olm

01 August 2013 | Article

The Olm (Proteus anguinus) is endemic to subterranean freshwater habitats of the Dinaric Karst. It is the only cave-adapted vertebrate and it eats, sleeps, and breeds underwater. The Olm has adapted to living in total darkness and can survive for up to 10 years without food. The Croatian Herpetological Society - Hyla and the Croatian Institute for Biodiversity are working on Olm conservation within the PROTEUS project.

The data on the Olm distribution and the general knowledge on its ecology and biology are scarce, even though it is the most recognizable representative of the endemic underground fauna. The PROTEUS project strives to determine the exact species distribution and its population status in Croatia. This is a challenging task given that its natural habitat is not easily accessible, converting the species observation and study in situ into a complex endeavour. This type of data collection and analysis is of high importance for the determination and realization of species protection measures.

The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species™ lists the Olm as Vulnerable (VU), because its Area of Occupancy is less than 2,000 km2, its distribution is severely fragmented, and there is continuing decline in the extent and quality of its habitat, and presumably also in the number of mature individuals. The species is restricted to Southern Slovenia and adjoining North-east Italy through coastal Croatia and karst regions of Bosnia and Herzegovina. It has yet to be officially recorded in Western parts of Montenegro.

Introduction of the species to the general public is one of the goals of the team of experts and volunteers – the more local communities know about the Olm, the bigger success the protection measures would have. A great step ahead in this direction was the shooting which Sir David Attenborough did in Croatia, selecting the Olm as one of the 10 species worldwide that he would like to protect from extinction. When interviewed for The Telegraph, he said: “In Croatia, it was once believed these Olms were baby dragons. It certainly is an odd looking creature. It has very tiny legs and an extremely elongated body, but perhaps the most interesting thing about it is that it lives for up to 100 years.”

The project is supported by the MAVA Foundation, the Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund and the Zoological Society of London (ZSL).