By Alberto Fajardo
MEXICOCITY – A new museum and conservation center dedicated to Mexico’s critically endangered axolotl salamander is highlighting the amphibian’s remarkable story that has captured the attention of scientists and the public alike.
With an impressive ability to heal itself, the axolotl (pronounced ah-sho-LO-tul) salamanders were showcased in the exhibit, which opened on Saturday, at Mexico City’s Chapultepec Zoo.
The center aims to raise awareness of the animal, native only to Mexico and which is dwindling in the wild due to dire threats to its natural habitat.
For decades, researchers have marveled at how the axolotl can regenerate amputated limbs and damaged body tissue, even its heart and brain. Scientists also documented its ability to breathe with lungs and gills, as well as absorb oxygen through its skin, making it particularly vulnerable to polluted water.
“They are one of the few animals that can regenerate their skin, muscles, bones, blood vessels, nerves, heart, brain,” said Fernando Gual, head of wild fauna conservation at the zoo.
“A hugely important part of this space is environmental education,” Gual said of the new museum’s exhibits, workshops and labs.
In Aztec legend, the desperate rebel god Xolotl transformed himself into an axolotl to hide and avoid being sacrificed by his fellow gods. He was still discovered, captured and killed. They were also a mainstay on the banquet tables of Aztec kings.
While the axolotl native to Mexico City’s southern Xochimilco district is especially well-known, Gual points to 16 other kinds of axolotls that also call Mexico home, each one “like a wetlands ambassador.”
Axolotls once thrived in Xochimilco’s muddy canals, the only remaining part of a once extensive system of Venice-like waterways dating back to Aztec times. But the urban sprawl, contaminated water and non-native fish with a taste for young axolotls have led to the salamander’s near-total collapse, according to population surveys.
Even so, Xochimilco still holds nearly 11% of Mexico’s biodiversity, according to Gual, with the country’s 370 amphibian species ranking it No. 5 worldwide.
As the museum opened to its first visitors, the axolotl’s celebrity status was easy to spot.
“The truth is I’m very, very, very, very excited to be able to see how they eat, how they live, just how they are,” gushed visitor Fernando, declining to give his surname but showing off a small axolotl tattoo on his arm.
“I’m marked for life.”