Dozens of slippery black creatures with friendly smiles slither through the grass in a park in Mexico City, Mexico. People in traditional Mexican clothing play drums and burn incense. Then the axolotls (pronounced ax-oh-lot’ls in English, and something close to ah-SHO-luhts in the Nahuatl language) are released into nearby water.
The amphibians are critically endangered. Mayors from six of Mexico City’s boroughs joined efforts to maintain the axolotls’ environment in the southern lake of Xochimilco. Nearby, around 70 breeding centers have popped up in the past few years.
Unlike most salamanders, axolotls typically retain most of their juvenile characteristics, such as keeping their feathery gills (while also developing lungs) and spending most of their time in water. They don’t metamorphose for a land-based adult life, though they can grow up to a foot long. They live only in the freshwater Lake Xochimilco and nearby canals.
Most wild axolotls are dark-colored—brown, gray, or black. But they’ve also become popular pets. The captive animals are usually white and pink, caused by a genetic mutation.
But one of their most astonishing attributes is the ability to regrow damaged limbs, hearts, spinal cords, and even parts of their brains. Remarkably, they don’t scar. Scarring can prevent tissue from regenerating. Imagine if you could do that! Scientists breed the species to study how organs develop as well as how this regeneration works.
Why are these beloved creatures in such a bad spot? Polluted water and loss of habitat from droughts or human encroachment decimated the wild population. Researchers have discovered that axolotls can also absorb oxygen through their skin—making them particularly vulnerable to dirty water. While there are plenty of pet and lab axolotls, there are likely less than 1,000 left in the wild. People breed the creatures in captivity, but the limited breeding pool leaves them vulnerable to disease.
The Mexico City project is called Ajolotón. The goal is to preserve the population by releasing captive-bred axolotls into the wild. Critics complain that the water where the salamanders were released is too dirty, so they likely could not survive.
But people are trying to help in other ways too. According to National Geographic, community organizer Dionisio Eslava Sandoval is trying to restore chinampas. Those are small, artificial islands built for growing crops. They make good habitats for axolotls.
And God made . . . everything that creeps on the ground according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. — Genesis 1:25
Why? All of God’s creation should be studied and valued, but axolotls are particularly fascinating and worth preserving. They may help scientists make medical advances one day.