Baby dragons in Central Europe? An old myth takes on new meaning

A massive cave in the heart of Europe holds a secret: it is the home to a most mysterious creature. Could it be… a dragon?

Not really, though that is one of many names used by the people of Slovenia to describe this unique, legendary animal. A recent article clarifies that the creature is an olm, or blind salamander, Proteus anguinus. Olms are full of contradictions and quirks: they are categorized as amphibians yet remain in their juvenile aquatic phase all their lives (their eating, sleeping, and breeding all occur underwater). They dwell only in caves and thus have adapted entirely to living in darkness, with undeveloped eyes and amped-up senses of hearing and smell. They can go long periods—years, even--without eating. And they can live to the venerable age of 100!

For centuries, legends have grown around these animals, known as "baby dragons" because they would wash out of their territory, the cave of Postojna, during floods, and caves have been long thought to be the realm of dragons. But why the attention to these strange creatures—also known as "human fish" because of their smooth, pinkish skin--NOW? High on the list of reasons are the possibilities that olm DNA offers researchers. Biologists are fascinated by the complexity of the olm's genome—which is sixteen times longer than the human genome, and full of curiously empty spaces. Perhaps an even more intriguing attraction is the ability of the olm, like that of salamanders, to regenerate limbs. Unlocking that secret for use in humankind would be, well, as marvelous as encountering a dragon….

The fascinating behavior of olms includes voracious eating habits and peculiar mating dances in the course of their long, long lives. And apparently these strange creatures have become a major tourist attraction, for the cave and for Slovenia in general.

A trip to visit baby dragons—sorry, olms--might just be one for the bucket list!

Just in Time for Hallowe’en: Here’s the Zombie Frog

A new, very secretive species of frog has been discovered in the Amazon. And wouldn’t you know? It’s a zombie.

Well, sort of.

The creature, which frankly looks like a circus-colored blobfish with legs, has a name--the Zombie frog--that’s a bit of a misnomer. It’s the HUMANS who, after hearing the frog’s call and doing serious amounts of digging through mud to find it, end up looking like disheveled walkers of the Undead variety.

Researchers in Guyana—specifically a German herpetologist named Raffael Ernst—unearthed the frog after hearing its very unique call and getting down (and dirty) trying to trace it. This took place after dark, of course—this frog is nocturnal. In point of fact, what was discovered was an entire genus--Synapturanus--with three named species. (But calling them Zombie frogs seems friendlier somehow!)

And of course, these unique specimens already carry with them a threat—not of being zombies, but of going extinct. Amphibians, the article points out, are already among the animals most endangered on the planet. And in the Amazon, commercial interests continue to promote—often illegally yet inexorably—massive logging, mining, and other activities of deforestation that imperil the existence of these and countless other species, named and unnamed.

Let’s hold fast to the hope that the Zombie frog, along with his amphibian relatives, escape the fate of becoming a “real” Undead, alive only in memory.

Weird (Herpetological) Science: For Lizards, Looking Strange Could Save Your Keester

It might sound peculiar, but being really bizarre-looking could possibly get you stricken from the menu of would-be predators. If you are a flying lizard, at least.

A recent, rather imaginative study centered on “flying” draco lizards put to the test the concept that looking flashy in nature was an instant signal that you are easy prey, no matter how attractive showiness might make you to the opposite sex. For the research, fortunately, no real draco lizards (which actually glide, not fly, within the forest canopy) were harmed or even jeopardized. Instead, researchers on the island of Borneo constructed and set up over 1500 robotic lizards. There were three types of these plastic mock-ups: ones with conspicuous, ostentatious display; “cryptic” lizards (hidden or no display); and ones with fixed ornaments—the obvious oddballs of the bunch. According to the study, the latter category emerged as the least likely to be bitten or attacked—as evidenced by the way the plastic showed definite predatory encounters. (There was no word about whether or not their robotic stare was off-putting.)

So perhaps elaborate get-ups that are not considered “normal” could merit you a Get Out of A Predator’s Mouth Free card. Might be worth a try, next time you put on that lizard costume!

Let Them Hear: Earless Monitor’s Fate Exposes Illegal Animal Trafficking

A recent article has illuminated a potentially devastating turn among zoos: the recent rise in the illegal trade of rare and endangered animals, with little to no consequence to those responsible.

The species at the heart of this story is a strange and wonderful creature: the earless monitor lizard. Found only in Borneo--which includes Brunei, Indonesia, and Malaysia-- this odd-looking creature (some call it a “miniature Godzilla”) was known via preserved specimens alone for many decades, and was only very recently discovered still very much alive. It is consequently a species with protected status that cannot be legally exported out of its native territories.

But, of course, it was exported, especially  within the past ten years. And the monitor, the "holy grail of herpetology," has unwittingly become the centerpiece of contention regarding illegal trade in wildlife within established zoological facilities.

What has been exposed by these mysterious creatures is the use of myriad loopholes to laws barring  their acquisition. The zoos involved reported acquiring the monitors from private individuals, from third parties like the non-accredited iZoo in Japan, and from hobby breeders. Yet no permits for these animals were ever obtained.

Trade in endangered animals in zoos is nothing new; the practice sadly used to be a commonplace occurrence throughout the world. It is only relatively recently that ethical measures and laws have been put in place to stop acquisitions that imperil animals already threatened by poaching, habitat loss, and climate change. But they are imperfect tools at best.

We can, however, do our small part to put an end to this detrimental activity. Increased scrutiny of these shady acquisitions, as well as public awareness of the threat posed to already-endangered creatures, will put pressure on those involved in illegal trafficking. Let’s get the word out!