Entering The World Of The Bizarre Olm
Practical Reptile Keeping|March 2017

Reports on one of the strangest amphibians in the world, which is to be found in cave systems in Europe.

Susie Kearley

In parts of Europe, blind cave salamanders, called olms (Proteus anguinus), have adapted to life in their dark, subterranean aquatic world by developing their other senses - especially smell and hearing. They are quite unique, and endemic to the caves of southeastern Europe. Unfortunately though, they are also endangered, which is why they form part of the Zoological Society of London’s (ZSL’s) EDGE of Existence programme.

An assessment of the olm

In 2007, ZSL launched their EDGE of Existence programme. EDGE stands for ‘Evolutionarily Distinct and Globally Endangered’. The ZSL experts, who are often based at London Zoo, work with conservation groups around the world, focusing on securing the survival of genetically unique endangered species by supporting, protecting and if possible, even expanding their remaining habitat.

“The EDGE programme scores species on two key elements,” explains project manager, Carly Waterman. “Firstly, they are prioritised based on how threatened the species is in the wild. That’s the ‘Globally Endangered’ aspect of EDGE.

“Secondly, they are prioritised based on how unique their genetic material is - this means that those species having few, if any, relatives in the animal kingdom score highly on this element of the assessment. That’s the ‘Evolutionarily Distinct’ aspect of EDGE. The two scores are then combined to produce an overall EDGE score for each species.

“We look at the top 100 high-scoring species and aim to have conservation schemes in place for those animals. Some EDGE species, such as the Asian elephant, black rhino and giant panda, already attract conservation attention, but many others are overlooked. That’s when EDGE steps in.”

Carly continues: “The olm salamander is one of those species whose decline has failed to attract significant conservation attention, and it means they’re in danger of going extinct without anyone noticing. Seventy percent of the top 100 EDGE mammals were receiving little or no conservation attention when the programme launched in 2007. But among amphibians it’s even worse - we launched EDGE amphibians in 2008 and 85% of the top 100 were receiving little or no conservation attention. The olm is third on the Top 50 Evolutionarily Distinct Amphibians list.”

The dragon’s larva

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