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Look: 3D scans reveal how cave-dwelling “baby dragons” hunt in the dark

Tesarova et. al, GigaScience via YouTube

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In the pitch-black karst caves of Europe, completely blind salamanders called olms thrive.

Tesarova et. al, GigaScience via YouTube

Formally known as Proteus anguinus, the elusive creatures once intrigued the likes of Charles Darwin and other early naturalists.

They were once thought to be the offspring of dragons — and are still sometimes referred to as such.

Today, questions remain about how olms adapted so well to cave life.

That’s why one research team scanned the bodies of olms and created 3D models to get a clearer view of their sensory organs.

Tesarova et. al, GigaScience via YouTube

Writing this week in the journal GigaScience, researchers investigated how key adaptations separate olms from other salamanders. They also published several interactive models online.

Tesarova et. al, GigaScience

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They compared the anatomy of olms to their salamander cousins, axolotls, which live above ground and have the ability to see.

Tesarova et. al, GigaScience via YouTube

The researchers found that olm eyes begin to develop as larvae, just like axolotls.

But once olms hatch, their eyes start to regress, and they never form the ability to see.

Tesarova et al, GigaScience

And compared to axolotls, olms’ olfactory cavities are much longer and shaped like tubes.

That likely enables them to have a more sensitive sense of smell.

“The olfactory nerves of P. anguinus are also considerably elongated, which is explained by a rather long rostral part of the skull.”

Tesarova et. al, study authors

Tesarova et. al, GigaScience

Tesarova et. al, GigaScience via YouTube

The salamanders use their noses, as well as other discrete senses, to seek out prey like snails and insects.

Tesarova et al, GigaScience

Plentiful muscles around the olm’s upper and lower jaw likely contribute to their status as a predator, too.

The researchers say visualizing this region in 3D could help scientists better explain how olms adapted to be hunters.

In this animation, the brain (purple), muscles (red), olfactory organs (green), and eyes (blue) of a juvenile olm is on display.

Tesarova et. al, GigaScience via YouTube

Documenting olms’ anatomy is the first step to uncovering the mysteries of their evolution.

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Tesarova et. al, GigaScience via YouTube

The olm “still keeps some of its secrets,” the researchers write.

But they made their models publicly available in the hopes that other scientists might use them to further research the cave dweller’s peculiar life.