Just how did Europe’s only blind, cave-dwelling salamander turn up in Sydney?

The Australian Museum collections are the largest and oldest natural history collections within Australia. These collections are important because they are a snapshot in time of what species have lived where, and they are widely studied by researchers around the world. The Herpetology collection is home to over 180,000 amphibian and reptile specimens. They range in size from the enormous Komodo Dragon and Giant Galapagos Tortoises to tiny rainforest-dwelling frogs. Some of our most important specimens include four extinct Australian frog species and an important collection of very early specimens from Sydney prior to large scale development.

Herpetology Collection Area 2018

Part of the AM Herpetology Collection.

Image: Abram Powell
© Australian Museum

A recent inventory of our collections has brought to light some of our oldest specimens of amphibians and reptiles, that are now being digitised for the first time. One of these highlights is not only biologically extraordinary, but also fascinating in how it came to be at the Australian Museum 160 years ago.

Olm (Proteus anguinus) in its natural habitat.
Olm (Proteus anguinus) in its natural habitat. Image: Arne Hodalič
© CC BY-SA 3.0

The Olm (Proteus anguinus) is an aquatic species of salamander that lives exclusively in caves along the Adriatic seaboard, as far inland as the headwaters of the Black Sea drainages, as far north as Istrian region (Slovenia) and as far south as Montenegro. Olms are remarkably well-adapted to living in total darkness, underground and underwater. As they are blind, they have one of the best senses of smell of any amphibian and have specialised ears that can sense vibrations from the ground and water. They also have a highly sensitive sensory organ in their head known as the ampullary organ that can detect prey through electrical changes in the water – and no worries if prey is nowhere to be found, because the Olm can also survive for up to ten years without food!

The Olm has a very slow way of life. It is known to live on average about 70 years, and in the wild has been recorded staying still in the exact same spot for seven years! However, as with so many amphibian species, its survival in the wild is threatened from a variety of activities, chiefly habitat disturbance from humans.

So how did an Olm make its way to the Australian Museum?

Until the 1870s, specimens in the Museum's collection were on public display in glass cabinets. In 1877, Edward Palmer was employed to catalogue the existing collections. As the Olm was found with an original tag tied to it, we know that the Olm specimen was received prior to 1877. Initially, we assumed it was probably part of a specimen exchange with other museums, a common occurrence at the time.

This is a plate from Pietro Configliachi and Mauro Rusconi book the “Observations and Natural History and Structure of the Proteus anguinus” which was published in 1821.

This is a plate from Pietro Configliachi and Mauro Rusconi book the “Observations and Natural History and Structure of the Proteus anguinus” which was published in 1821.

Image: Mauro Rusconi
© Public Domain.

A search of records on these exchanges however, did not show any records of Olms and further detective work was needed. Searching Sydney newspapers at the time revealed that this special specimen was received as a donation to the Australian Museum in January 1861. From that account it is listed as “A Proteus from the Magdalenen Grotto, near Adelsberg by Mr R.S. Willis, Grey Cliff”.

But where is Grey Cliff? In fact, Grey Cliff is not a suburb, but appears to be a mistranslation for Greycliffe House, a historic two-storey residence in the current suburb of Vaucluse. At that time, the house was leased to a Mr Joseph Scaife Willis, a prominent Sydney businessman and his wife Janet who moved there in 1855. Of their five children, the oldest Robert Speir Willis was born in 1837 and is believed to be the Mr R.S. Willis listed in the newspaper article. Between 1852 and 1862 he was enrolled at University of Sydney where he graduated with a Masters of Arts in 1862. Robert then embarked on some overseas trips and spent some time working for his father. In 1865 he entered the ministry and eventually became the Reverend Robert Speir Willis. Though we will never know how he obtained the specimen, Robert was known for giving public talks on all the beautiful cities he had visited, and all the customs he had observed. Perhaps on one of these earlier trips, he may have obtained an Olm live, or also a preserved specimen, and then decided to donate it to the Australian Museum where it now resides. During these times it was also common for people to have private natural history collections.

Greycliffe House circa 1875

Greycliffe House circa 1875.

Image: Public Domain.
© Public Domain.

We do know that after Olms were described to science in 1768, specimens were sought after as scientific objects, gifts, and pets which further aroused interest in this strange subterranean animal. As transport methods throughout Europe and the world increased, Olms were regularly obtained and sold to collectors and aquarium owners, and some even were exhibited at the World Exhibitions in Paris and Vienna in 1867 and 1873. Thus, it seems more probable that Robert obtained the specimen on a visit to this area or as a gift from his parents. Adelsberg, the location mentioned in the newspaper, was the German name for Postojna, a town in Slovenia which is very close to the Postojna Cave complex where the species can be seen today.

The Olm specimen has now been digitised and added to the electronic database. The specimen is considered an important part of our collection – even after close to 150 years, the specimen is in fine condition, and the Australian Museum only holds one specimen of the Olm. More so, the specimen provides an insight into Olms (i.e. morphological or genetic diversity changes over time) long before they became threatened and may allow us to better conserve Olms in the wild today.

Dane Francis Trembath, Herpetological Technical Officer, Herpetology, Australian Museum Research Institute.

More information:

  • Aljancic, M. (1993) Proteus: the mysterious ruler of Karst darkness. Vitrum, Ljublijana, Slovenija.
  • Aljancic, G. (2019) History of research on Proteus anguinus Laurenti 1768 in Slovenia / Zgodovina raziskovanja človeške ribice (Proteus anguinus Laurenti 1768) v Sloveniji. Folia biologica et geologica. 60: 39-69.
  • Doolan, S. (2007). The Willis Family History. Pam Alexander and Bruce Speir Willis, Vacy, New South Wales.
  • Shaw T. R. (2005): Proteus for scientists and tourists. A history of its 19th century collection and captivity. ENDINS 28: 51–60.
  • NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service. Greycliffe House and Nielson Park Heritage Tour https://www.nationalparks.nsw.gov.au/things-to-do/guided-tours/greycliffe-house-and-nielsen-park-heritage-tour.