April 13, 2024

Coming out of my cave, and I’m doing great, swallowing these worms

There I was, going through my morning routine in absolute solitude – or so I thought. I had just emerged from my submerged limestone cave, having slowly climbed to the sun-drenched waters at the surface, when I had the sudden suspicion that I was being watched. I couldn’t see the intruders – unfortunately, I don’t have eyes – but I could hear them. The sound of boots hitting the soaked leaves. The buzzing of a camera. The mellifluous tones of a romantic language. For reasons previously unknown to me, I was followed by a group of humans with the intention of taking my photo, without prior warning and for reasons they forgot to explain to me. Can’t a blind cave salamander go for a happy walk without getting caught?

Now the news is out, first in an article published in Ecology and then by diabolical, thirsty tabloids and other rags that wouldn’t even be good for cleaning the sole of my boot, if I ever wore one. Now everyone who reads The New York Times From top to bottom – which I suppose very few real people, perhaps a relief – know about my little jaunts from underground to surface. The fact that they know about my tours is not the issue; I never tried to hide my walks. What I care about is that people are so weird about it! Imagine if every time you left your apartment to get a snack you had to dodge the cameras of one to eight Italian biologists who were literally obsessed with you. They didn’t just monitor my cave exit; They also observed nine other caves as well as 69 above-ground springs in northeastern Italy for wandering olms. I never asked for this level of fame!

But like any nepo baby, I also know that the stardom I was born into has an ancient lineage that long precedes me. I am an elm, a species of aquatic salamander that has turned pale and blind after living underground for millions of years. We olms are celebrity recluses as far as salamanders go. My species evolved in southern Europe, and in the 17th century, people living around Postojnska Cave believed we were baby dragons because they believed the hot air rising from our cave was dragon smoke. Unfortunately, those were the days when being an old man meant something. A time when being old meant you were revered, or even feared, by people who had never heard of a camera or a free press! Italian physicist and naturalist Giovanni Antonio Scopoli was the first to capture a live elm tree from our cave system, and ever since then, people have been simply obsessed with us.

Why are you so obsessed with me! | Raoul Manenti

Who could blame them? We grow as long as bananas and look not unlike Facetuned worms, with poreless bodies paler than strawberry milk. We have four short legs with a few toes on each foot. We don’t need much oxygen and we can live for more than a century. Sure, we don’t have eyes, but we can feel vibrations, magnetic fields, and chemicals. And this is clearly all we need to navigate not just our cave world, but the surface world as well.

However, some scientists consider us underground, cave-dwelling elms to be examples of “regressive” evolution because we lost our eyes, betraying their callous opinion about the life-changing power of committing to little, evolutionarily speaking. . Scientists see these extreme adaptations as proof that we are evolutionary “dead ends” – where else could we evolve to from here? – and maybe they’re right. This kind of limited thinking prevented scientists from imagining that a little olm like me could survive outside the abyss of my cave. But, to be frank, I don’t often worry about the evolutionary future of my species. I’m worried about my future. When I die, perhaps a century from now, what will I have done with this life? What will I have done with my time on Earth?

I didn’t always think like that. I grew up like any other old man. I swam. I ate shrimp, insect larvae and even snails. Because food can be scarce in my cave, I often went years without eating. But then I learned about one particular olm, one I’ve never met, but whose story I’ll never forget as long as I live. Researchers who labeled and tracked several elm trees in the caves of eastern Bosnia-Herzegovina discovered that one elm tree remained in exactly the same location for 2,569 days. When I found out about this old man, my heart almost came out of my chest. Staying in the same little patch of cave for over seven years? I couldn’t imagine that. What kind of life was this? New Scientist called it olm lazywhere could I have called this olm clinically depressed.

Since that day, I swore I wouldn’t be like that old man. Of course, maybe I can’t to see the world because of my lack of eyes, but I can certainly feel it! What were the vibrations like above the surface? What magnetic fields existed beyond my cave? I needed to know what was hidden above, not for any specific purpose other than the passion that comes from wandering and observing the world. Can’t an olm be a flâneur?

A photo of a blind cave salamander called an olm, which has no eyes, looks like a noodle and is light pink, in a shallow surface pool
I’m on top of the world, I think! | Raoul Manenti

The surface was everything I could have imagined and more. It was a feast of wonderful creatures, strangely like me – long, thin, pink and eyeless. I was surprised to see that a creature like an earthworm wouldn’t also live in a cave, one of life’s many mysteries that I’m beginning to unravel. But I was happy to find them on the surface and promptly slurped them up, meals that would have lasted me years if those pesky biologists hadn’t caught me, scared me, and caused me and four other olms to vomit up our worm feasts. It’s one thing to be chased by cameras, it’s another to have the paparazzi literally scaring the food out of your stomach! But I was not without hope, for I now knew that the Earth’s surface was riddled with worms, fat and ready for the slurping. And once this news cycle is over, my fellow olms and I will be free once again to emerge from our caves and hunt in beautifully dappled light that we will never be able to perceive. Then we will be free, as Charles Baudelaire wrote, “to be far from home and yet feel at home everywhere; to see the world, to be at the center of the world, and yet remain hidden from the world – impartially.” natures that language can only clumsily define.” Let my tongue clumsily define some more of these tasty worms!

Before I return to my cave, I want to leave you with this: As another creature with a lifespan that could last a century or more, what will your legacy be? Will you be the human who has remained in one place for seven years – safe, certainly, but excluded from the world and its wonders – or will you leave fear behind and head towards some brave new world and its ephemeral pleasures? Will you waste away or will you live? I can’t promise there will be worms wherever you go, but for your sake, I hope they’re there—fat, juicy, and enough to nourish you for years.

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