In a cave in Slovenia, scientists and tourists alike continue to anticipate the hatching of "baby dragons."
Although these small, pale and blind creatures are not the kind of dragons we see on TV, these animals are thought of with fondness in the Central European country, thus earning its nickname.
Known as olms, these aquatic salamanders are truly rare as they only breed once in a decade. These amphibians are found mainly in Balkan Cave Rivers and have not been seen in the wild.
Several of them reside in Slovenia's Postojna cave, which is a popular tourist destination in the country.
Indeed, researchers working inside Postojna cave have been waiting for months for a batch of olm eggs to emerge. In late May and early June, two of these baby dragons have finally hatched.
The story began in January this year when a tour guide noticed that an olm egg became attached to the wall of an aquarium at the cave. By March 10, 64 eggs were all laid by a single female olm.
Of the 64 eggs, only 23 eggs were to emerge safely. The first baby dragon hatched on May 30, followed by a second on June 1. Scientists expect the remaining 21 eggs to come out in the coming weeks.
Although no one witnessed the first olm to wriggle out of its egg, the awe-inspiring event was captured by an infrared camera.
Researchers at Postojna have also teamed up with experts from France, who have been studying olms in a lab located underground since the 1950s.
This French lab is also the only other habitation where these aquatic salamanders have been carefully observed coming out from their eggs. No one has ever witnessed an olm younger than two years in nature.
"It's one of those moments where you are happy to be alive now and experience such a unique event," says biologist Saso Weldt, one of the researchers in the cave.
Although the new baby dragons will take about 15 years to grow into maturity, both of them will have an average lifespan of 100 years. These animals will reach a maximum length of 35 centimeters (13.5 inches) at maturity.
The pale predators, which could go on without eating anything for up to a decade, use their acute sensory receptors for movement and smell. This helps them hunt for snails and crabs even in the dark.
Olms have earned their special place in Slovenia's natural folklore, as they were believed to be the offspring of dragons.
In 1689, Slovenian scientist Janez Vajkard Valvasor first described olms as a baby dragon in his book named The Glory of Duchy of Carniola.
Valvasor said olms were tiny baby dragons that would get washed into the sea, where they would fully mature. He said these baby dragons would spend the rest of their lives under the crust of the Earth.
This description became the groundwork for the folklore in Slovenia. It wasn't until about 200 years later that the myth was dispelled, and scientists began studying olms as amphibians.
In the meantime, scientists in Slovenia hope to understand better how olms grow and live for a hundred years.
Photo: Ryan Somma | Flickr