Baby dragons commute out of their caves.

The New York Times reports on olms — blind, pale, cave-dwelling salamanders once believed to be baby dragons — regularly traveling up to the surface out of their underwater caves, a behavior that’s taken ecologists by surprise:

Eyeless and ghostly pale from millions of years spent below ground, the salamanders appear to commute back and forth to the sunny surface using springs where water bubbles up from hundreds of feet deep. Raoul Manenti, a zoology professor at the University of Milan, and colleagues described the unexpected discovery in a study published last month in the journal Ecology.

The salamanders, a species called olms, were once believed to be baby dragons. While we now know they won’t sprout wings, olms still seem like mythical creatures.

About the length of a banana, olms have eel-like bodies and spindly legs. Their faces are featureless except for a crown of frilly pink gills. When olms hatch, their eyes are quickly covered with skin, leaving them blind. They navigate their dark world by sensing vibrations, chemicals in the water and magnetic fields. Olms can live for more than a century and are famously thrifty with their energy (one olm in the Balkans didn’t move for seven years).

To find an olm, Dr. Manenti and his team usually have to rappel down well-like openings to reach caves including the Trebiciano abyss, about as deep as the Eiffel Tower is tall. But in 2020, a group of spelunkers and ecologists, including Dr. Manenti, spotted an olm swimming in an aboveground spring. They were floored.

Veronica Zampieri, then a graduate student at the University of Milan, began monitoring 69 aboveground springs in the area. She was surprised to find olm visitors at 15 of the springs, even when no recent floods had occurred. Some of the springs saw high traffic, with multiple olms visiting consistently.

To her shock, Ms. Zampieri found olms on aboveground jaunts not just in the nighttime but also in broad daylight. Underground, the “mighty olm” is the apex predator, Ms. Zampieri said, but on the surface the animals’ stark-white bodies and blindness should make them easy pickings for predators.

You can read more of the olm research here, in Ecology.