Interview with Dr. Hans Recknagel, MSCA Fellow


Dr. Hans Recknagel is an evolutionary biologist and a Marie Curie Fellow at the Biotechnical Faculty at the University of Ljubljana, with Dr. Peter Trontelj and BGI Genomics. In this collaborative work he aims to achieve something very interesting: to understand how the olm (Proteus anguinus, or in everyday Slovenian človeška ribica, the “human fish”) has adapted to cave life.

His interest in evolutionary biology goes back to childhood, which he spent in Germany. He was first interested in dinosaurs, and when he was seven years old he received his first field guide of European reptilians and amphibians. He remembers: “There was this one strange animal that looked like nothing else – that was the olm.”


Although Dr. Recknagel did not get to see the olm as a child, his desire to understand why animals are the way they are led him to study biology, and then to a PhD in evolutionary biology at the University of Glasgow. In 2017, he attended the European Congress of Herpetology. As he recalls, “I talked to some of the researchers from Slovenia, and after that I knew that I had to come here.”


There are many fascinating facts about the olm. For example, it lives more than one hundred years and is blind. For evolutionary biologists this cave animal is especially interesting, says Dr. Recknagel: “In one way it looks very special, but in a different way it is really a representative of all the groups of animals who went to caves and adapted to cave life.”


Besides the well-known white olm, the black olm can also be found in Slovenia. This animal has retained its eyes, it still has pigmentation and its limbs are much shorter. Moreover, there is actually not just one “form” of olm: “There are nine different lineages that aren’t described as different species yet, but very much look like different species. Slovenia has five different of these. There is a part of northwest Italy where the olm also lives, and there is Croatia and Bosnia as well. So, it is endemic for this region, but there is also more diversity than we thought before.”


Dr. Recknagel’s project, called GENEVOLCAV – Genomics of evolution to cave-life in the European olm, will conclude in October 2023. He is very passionate about it: “A part of it is field work. That is probably the most exciting part of my work, because we have to descend to the caves and we have to put on our neoprene suits to snorkel a little bit, to try to find and catch the animals. Then we take a swab of the DNA.”


Afterwards, the lab work starts. “We extract the DNA and the next challenge is that the olm has a really massive genome. It is 10 times bigger than the human genome.”  And then finally, the last stage begins – in front of a computer, trying to analyse all the data.


Viel Erfolg! Good luck!