An Axolotl salamander, or Ambystoma mexicanum from Mexico City, swims to the surface for air beneath the tourist gondolas in the remains of a great Aztec lake. Its slimy tail, plumage-like gills and mouth that curls into an odd smile. Known as the “water monster” and the “Mexican walking fish,” was a key part of Aztec legend and diet. Surviving until now amid Mexico City’s urban sprawl in the polluted canals of Lake Xochimilco.
Scientists are racing to save the foot-long salamander from extinction. It has fallen victim to the draining of its lake habitat, deteriorating water quality and the introduction of a nonnative fish like African tilapia and into the canals. This fish preys on the salamander and its babies.
The Axolotl salamander is on the Red List of threatened species, researchers say they could disappear in just five years! “If the axolotl disappears, it would not only be a great loss to biodiversity but to Mexican culture, and would reflect the degeneration of a once-great lake system,” says Luis Zambrano, a biologist at the Autonomous University of Mexico.
“The number of axolotls (pronounced ACK-suh-LAH-tuhl) in the wild is not known. Millions once lived in the giant lakes of Xochimilco and Chalco on which Mexico City was built. Using four stubby legs to drag themselves along lake bottoms or their thick tails to swim like mini-alligators, they hunted plentiful aquatic insects, small fish and crustaceans.
Legend has it that Xolotl — the dog-headed Aztec god of death, lightning and monstrosities feared he was about to be banished or killed by other gods and changed into an axolotl to flee into Lake Xochimilco.”
Scientists study the axolotls’ ability to completely regenerate lost limbs and they are used in research on regeneration, embryology, fertilization and evolution. “The salamander has the rare trait of retaining its larval features throughout its adult life, a phenomenon called neoteny. It lives all its life in the water but can breathe both under water with gills or by taking gulps of air from the surface.”
Mexico City’s ‘water monster’ nears extinction – David Koop, A P Nov 2,2008.
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