Episode 195 – Olm: Long and Long-Lasting

“…and today we’re talking about a lost boy that lives in caves and doesn’t want to grow up. But more on that later.”

Living in the pitch blackness of the caves of southern Europe is a tiny eyeless Chinese dragon that can regrow its arms and sense prey using electricity. Intrigued? Well that’s not even the half of it. The olm is the world’s longest-living salamander and has taken Gloria Gaynor’s call to survive as it grows strong and learns how to get along – without food and light and stuff. But sometimes the neutral gin is the way to live a long life here in Life, Death, and Taxonomy.

Description of the Olm

  • The olm is a writhing, slimy, salamander with a long slender body and tiny little arms and legs. 
  • They are mostly torso, and their tail is relatively short with a thin fin on it for swimming.
  • Their heads are alligator-shaped, like a rounded triangle.
  • Olms are called čovječja ribica (Human fish) because they have a pale human skin tone color.
  • Strangely, it’s weird little limbs only have three toes on the forelegs and two on the back legs.
  • They also have frilly external gills like the axolotl.

Nitty Gritty Nomenclature

Which of these is the translation for the olm’s binomial name Proteus anguinus?

  1. Serpentine water god
  2. Ancient blood
  3. Strong cycles
  4. Primordial Worm

Measure Up

Welcome to the beloved Measure Up segment. The official listener’s favorite part of the show! The part of the show when we present the animal’s size and dimension in relatable terms through a quiz that’s fun for the whole family. It’s also the part of the show that’s introduced by you when you send in audio of yourself saying, singing, or chittering the words Measure Up into ldtaxonomy at gmail dot com. We don’t have a new Measure Up intro!

  1. Cape Buffalo
  2. Alpaca
  3. Hippopotamus
  4. Elephant seal


  • 20–30 cm (8–12 in) long
  • How many go into Maja Jezercë in the Albanian Alps? 
  • Hint: The mountain is among the Prokletije or Accursed Mountains. The mountains are tall with steep sides. Their insurmountability and the wild, untamed nature of the terrain likely earned it the name “Accursed.”
  • 8,980 Olms. Maja Jezercë is 8,839 feet (2,694 m) tall.


  • 0.6 oz (17 grams)
  • How many olms go into the largest slanina ever
  • Hint: A slanina (also called pancetta and salo) is a slab of pork. It’s a cured slab of fatback. It was prepared by four buds from Slavonia, Croatia and it came from a pig that was worth more than 10,000 kuna.
  • 11,411 olms. The slanina weighed 194 kg (427 lbs).

Fast Facts about the Olm

  • Olms are adapted to life in total darkness. 
  • They live in caves, and swim around in dank cave water.
  • Because of this, they have undeveloped eyes and are completely blind. Instead, they use their excellent smell and hearing to get around. 
  • Their eyes are sensitive to light and if they detect it, they’ll swim away. Since they have no pigmentation in their skin, they could get a pretty bad sunburn.
  • Olms are able to sense organic chemicals in the water, even in low concentrations. Chemoreceptors allow them to detect prey, including snails, insects, and crustaceans. 
  • They also have electroreception organs that allow them to detect electrical fields. Some researchers believe that they may be able to use the earth’s magnetic field to orient themselves.
  • Olms are gregarious and like to have parties in stone cracks in caves, like in the Matrix. 

Major Fact: I Will Survive

  • Spending your whole life in a cold cave with no light whatsoever can have some interesting effects on vertebrates – as shown by, you know, the olm’s complete lack of functional eyes.
  • But where we’re going, we don’t need eyes
  • It takes about 5 months for the olm to hatch and then another 14 years to reach sexual maturity.
  • After that, it can live for up to 100 years –  one of the longest lifespans for vertebrates
  • But how can it live so long?
  • Complicating things is the fact that the water it lives in hovers at just 50 degrees Fahrenheit (or 10 celsius). While this doesn’t sound very cold, it definitely does if you’re a cold-blooded amphibian.
  • Plus, food can be extremely difficult to come by in the depths of a cave. So this little salamander spends all its time in a cold, foodless, lightless cave – sounds like a great way to spend your life when you’ve only got 100 years to live.
  • Well, the olmighty olm is uniquely adapted to live in this harsh environment.
    • The cold actually goes a long way toward its longevity. It drastically slows the olm’s metabolic rate, which reduces the strain on the heart, the need for food, and the number of free radicals that damage both DNA and tissues.
      • Free radicals are atoms or molecules that are unstable and will interact with DNA strands and tissue cells. They’re a natural byproduct of cells producing energy in the body, so they’re unavoidable. But they contribute to aging and muscle deterioration.
    • So with this slower metabolism, they can literally chill out for long periods of time. One olm was recorded to have sat in one place for almost 7 years!
  • In fact, they can go for up to 10 years without any food thanks to a unique way of storing nutrients and energy in the liver. Like a tardigrade.
    • Plus, like the axolotl, they have wolverine-esque regeneration powers and can regrow limbs. So they can even absorb their own tissue for nutrients and regrow it once they finally get their meal.

Ending: So engage your electroreceptors, make the most of every meal, and always be sure to store both lipids AND glycogen in your liver like the olm here in Life, Death, and Taxonomy.