Dragon’s Postcard From Slovenia

By Andrej Mrevlje |

Deep inside Postojna Cave, an ancient wonder of rock and water not far from the Slovenian capital city of Ljubljana, sits a modernist aquarium—an anachronism of steel and glass and blue lighting. Seven hundred thousand people visit Postojna each year, not only to see the cave, which evokes Gaudí’s most elaborate neogothic confections, but also to observe the creatures that live in the aquarium. These are the olms, aquatic salamanders of the species Proteus anguinus, known colloquially as baby dragons. They have flat heads with a ruff of lucent pink gills, long slithery bodies, and delicate little legs. Their skin, which covers their mostly undeveloped eyes, lacks pigment, leaving their internal organs visible and giving them an eerie glow. In the course of their lives, which may last as long as a century, olms can grow to a foot in length. They are the largest cave-dwelling animals in the world, apex predators adapted to a harsh existence in the cold, subterranean dark. They can survive for a decade without eating (tiny cave shrimp make up a substantial part of their diet), and they breed only once every six or seven years.

So opened Meehan Crist’s feature article on the New Yorker website this week. “What’s Behind Slovenia’s Love Affair With a Salamander?” read the headline.  The piece reads like a letter from afar.

It actually came to my address in the form of an email from a friend who sent me the link as a reading suggestion. Knowing that I was from Slovenia myself, and that the little olm has so much to do with the identity of my people, my friend thought that I would be interested to learn what looms over the destiny of the animal that is so important to my countrymen — especially after Heineken bought Slovenia’s biggest brewery and got unlimited access to the high-quality natural water sources that they use for their worldwide beer production. It goes without saying that Slovenia’s baby dragons, already endangered by pollution, might now also suffer a shortage of clean water in an area that has been their natural habitat for ages. As a result of the endangerment of the Proteus anguinus, the New Yorker suggests, Slovenians may have to redefine their identity and mythology.

As a kid, I was taught to call the olms in Postojna Cave “človeška ribica” — small human fish. The diminutive “ribica” is important, and “človeška” — human — makes it special. It was neither food nor a ferocious predator, but a human fish! A small creature that needed protection. That needed to be loved. All things small —  all things labelled with a diminutive noun in the Slovenian language — have to be loved. They must not be eaten. Or tortured. That is how the language works.

But when you are growing up, and still learning, you tend not to respect the rules. You test them; you play with language; you try to be creative. So for us teenagers back in the day, the little human fish somehow felt pejorative: underdeveloped, blind, ugly — it looked like many other parasites, but for those three little toes on its front legs, and the two on its back legs. That made them become  dear, tender even to us at our ruthless age. They made you think of a fetus — a human fetus, to be exact — and they were therefore protected even from teenagers who like to explore everything that moves while they play the cruelest of games. These are the only reasons I can think of that would explain why we call Proteus anguinus a “človeška ribica” in Slovenian.

The only time I went to Postojna Cave was much later in life, during the brief period when I was working as an interpreter and I took a high-level Chinese delegation to visit the Cave. So I learned all about the history of the Cave, and I was very impressed by the fact that it was conceived as a summer concert hall during the time of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. When I visited with the Chinese delegation, there were no olms to be seen — or at least, my guests were not interested in them. Back home, the Chinese  have their own “salamander” — namely, the silk worm that is much more productive than a Slovenian olm.

Over the past few years, the Cave was developed into a major tourist attraction, and its management received an international award for the business model they created with a small human fish at it’s core.

 So “človeška ribica” is no longer protected, but economically exploited as part of the country’s speleological tourism, since Slovenia’s caves are the home to the endemic olm, the largest troglodytic amphibian in the world.

The New Yorker also gave me a second piece of news that I did not know:

In late January, a female olm laid an egg against the glass of the Postojna aquarium, inaugurating what might seem a disproportionate flurry of international media attention. She produced nearly sixty more eggs in the ensuing month, and has been written up everywhere from the Slovenia Times to the New York Times. “This is very cool—it is quite extraordinary,” Primož Gnezda, a biologist at Postojna, told the BBC. Some have even joked about the olm being named the Slovenian Woman of the Year. The other six olms have been moved out of the aquarium, which is now boarded up, and some of the early eggs are showing signs of fetal development—the nubs of heads and backbones.

I am extremely happy to read stories like this about my country in such a prestigious publication as the New Yorker. It puts you on the map, right? But what I also like is that the writer rebranded the small human fish as baby dragons. I much prefer to call them dragons than fish. And now that we have reached the sixth season of Game of Thrones, the many eggs of the Slovenian dragons make fantasy fly. At least, I hope this is what’s happening back in my country. It would be good news after such murky and depressing reports about the barbed wire on the south border of Slovenia that is replacing its previously open borders in favor of trying to keep refugees away. If only the baby dragons could grow into something stronger and more daring, so that a Slovenian would not have to be ashamed of his own country.

Going back to the Proteus anguinus, there are some very serious observations to be made. While every national ideology tries to prove its country to be special and exceptional in any small way possible, the Proteus does seem to be a scientific phenomenon, as Meehan Cris observes:

In 2012, the British naturalist David Attenborough picked it as one of ten endangered species that he would take on his personal ark. The salamander possesses an astonishing set of sensory systems, including the ability to detect both Earth’s magnetic field and the bioelectric fields of other organisms, and photosensitive skin. (Shine a flashlight on the tip of an olm’s tail and the animal will quickly slide away.) Its frilly pink gills are a telltale sign of neoteny: most amphibians lose their gills as they develop, but the olm retains its larval form, never fully developing into an adult. This  has recently caught the attention of researchers studying the mechanisms of aging. But biologists may not get the chance to explore the olm’s other secrets.

And as we can read in one of the reports from Proteus, the scientific publication in Slovenia, there a various cave labs that specialize in Proteus research. The oldest of them is the Tular lab, some 60 miles away from the home of the Proteus, the Postojna Caves. To this day, there is a large Proteus family that is under permanent observation by the zoologists and other scientists who built a lab out of an old underground Nazis bunker from World War II. A few years ago, Proteus published a large report on the work of Tular and its founder, Marko Aljančič:

“Almost everything there is to know about the life of Proteus today was discovered in laboratories, far from its natural environment, which is only partly accessible to man. This remains inevitable when studying cave animals. Half a century of work by Tular cave laboratory has proven that even small institutions can perform tasks that are in the public interest. It is understandable that Tular cannot compare to big, well-equipped institutes, but it can very well complement their work with its experience and expertise, especially in research projects that require natural conditions necessary for long-term observation of the Proteus.”

Slovenian scientists were generous in sharing their scientific observations, and even the olms themselves, which are now spread throughout various labs around the world.

The long report ends with a story about an emperor and a little dragon. It says in Slovenian that in 1968, the functionaries of the Communist Party leadership came to visit the lab and ask for a few of the “small human fish” that President Tito wanted to send as gift to the Japanese Emperor Hirohito. The latter was a marine biologist, and therefore presumably interested in the species. Tito’s personal doctor, Predrag Lalević, was appointed to be the president’s envoy, and to accompany the “človeško ribico” all the way to the imperial palace in Tokyo. Marko Aljančič, who was nurturing the olms in the lab Tular, offered to come along, but there was not enough money for another plane ticket. The transport of the olm was tricky due to the need to keep the creatures in one constant water temperature. Difficult to achieve, with the contrast between the outside temperatures in Siberia — around 30 below zero, centigrade — and the overheated hotel rooms. In an interview a few years ago, Dr. Lalević confessed that he slept very little, since he had to control the water temperature all the time. When he finally arrived in Tokyo, he was so tired that he threatened to drown the damn olms in the toilet, and the Yugoslav Embassy needed to intervene and host the olms for a night.

In the end, Emperor Hirohito was very happy with of the gift, but the Slovenian scientists have no idea whether their baby dragons survived the death of the Japanese emperor.


Also published on Medium.

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