Yesterday I talked about the animal that gets the most sunlight. Today, one that gets none at all.
It’s the Olm, also called the Proteus. It’s an amphibian endemic to the subterranean caves of the Balkans, and being cave-dwelling, it has no use for eyes or pigmentation. Its body has become serpentine, to incorporate more touch receptors. Its tiny feet, instead of having the four toes like most amphibians, have only three toes each on the front limbs, two on the hind. Like the axolotl, it retains neotenic features such as external gills: it is a dragon embryo surviving in the dark, an infantile troglodyte.
With its acute sense of smell and touch, the olm gets along just fine in what, for us, would be the equivalent of a sensory-deprivation chamber. Hundreds of yards beneath the Earth’s surface, the water temperature remains constant, there is almost no sound, and the olm has no predators to worry about. But then, there is very little food. Barring tiny crustaceans and snails, as well as its own bacteria-laden skin molts, there is almost nothing to eat in a world so far removed from the sun. Instead of shutting down its life functions like the water bear, the olm has gained the ability to go up to ten years without eating. With a lifespan of up to 70 years, and perhaps even 100, an unlucky olm may eat only a few times in the course of a century. But centuries do not exist here: where the olm lives, there are neither years, nor seasons, nor hours, nor day and night.
If outer space is a vacuum, there are places in inner space that are as close to oblivion as possible, and there is a vertebrate uniquely adapted to thrive here in this near-nothingness beyond light and time – slithering, starving, waiting for rains it will never know to wash down a few crumbs of life to eat. As an atheist, I think of Earth as the closest thing to Heaven. But there is also an underworld here, like the atheist’s afterlife: noiseless, blank, without time or change or meaning. And here, too, life persists.