Hope for saving holy Aztec salamander

I have written earlier this year about the alarming decline of the axolotl, this weird looking salamander that retains its juvenile characteristics throughout its life and is only to be found in lake Xochimilco in the megacity of Mexico-City. Numbers have been going done drastically in recent decades up till the point that only a few individuals could be found in survey efforts earlier this year. Luckily scientists have been creating ‘shelters’ for these salamanders  in which they pump clean water and keep the fishy predators out. Other efforts are now underway and we might again have some hope that this amazing animal survives.

Axolotl (Ambystoma mexicanum)  Credit:: Aureapterus / iStockphoto

Axolotl (Ambystoma mexicanum) Credit: Aureapterus / iStockphoto

Why is this animal so amazing? Well for starters, consider how this animal is able to regenerate not just limbs, but also its spinal cord and even complex brain tissue. Moreover, it has been shown to be a thousand times more resistant to cancer than we mammals are. No wonder then that axolotls are being studied thoroughly by scientists in the hope we can learn from their abilities. The Aztecs already had great respect for the salamander, because of its strange looks and regenerative powers. They believed it to be a manifestation of the god Xolotl, who was the ferryman of the dead to the underworld.

Because of its special place in Mexican culture and because such a distinctive species vital to our biodiversity, scientists of the National Autonomous University of Mexico  are striving to keep the legendary axolotl alive. Besides building the special ‘shelters’ as mentioned in the previous blogpost, they are trying to convince local farmers to stop using harmful pesticides and avoid growing non-native plants near the canals in lake Xochimilco. In return, the farmer’s  vegetables would get an eco-friendly label that enables them to ask a higher price.

View of Lake Xochimilco. Credit: Hugo Elias

View of Lake Xochimilco. Credit: Hugo Elias

Around 10 farmers are adopting the system, which includes making the canals cleaner by using aquatic plants as biofilters. And with success, because so far about 100 salamanders have been born in three experimental canals, said Horacio Mena, the project’s coordinator. But with conditions in the lake still dire, they are also breeding salamanders in the lab. The locations of these breeding grounds have been kept secret to prevent the theft of the creatures, that are popular as pets and are used for dubious medicinal purposes on the black market.

With this two-way strategy of improving its habitat and breeding it in captivity some experts believe that  eventually efforts to ensure the salamander’s survival will pay off. “It is growing in many labs around the world and aquariums,” said Roger Bartra, a renowned scientist. “While it is preserved artificially, it lives a more modern, cosmopolitan and transnational life,” he joked . So maybe the key to survival of this typically Mexican salamander lies outside of its home country.

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