Wednesday 1 February 2012


Image: Stephen Dalton
In the face of terrible adversity the critically endangered Axolotl smiles cheekily, loses a place in the wild but gains a place in our hearts. Cheesy I know, but this is probably the only salamander most people can get weepy and sentimental about. So let's do it when we can.

Image: Wikimedia
The Axolotl is a neotenic salamander, meaning it's an eternal child who had a few too many at the Fountain of Youth. It's like pet dogs, who are all essentially wolf pups who get big. It's also completely different to pet dogs, since Axolotls are amphibians that don't go through metamorphosis and end up looking quite a lot like tadpoles their whole life.

Unless they're one of those freakish mutant Axolotls who become grown-ups. Ewwww!

Axolotls reach adulthood after about 2 years, at which point they'll be about 30 cm (12 in) long. They retain 3 pairs of frilly gills for breathing in water and a fin on their tail for swimming. Even the babies have legs and adults are no different, but these limbs remain thin, weak and inappropriate for life on land. It's all fine of course, because Axolotls don't move out from fresh waters.

Image: Wikipedia
Another thing that doesn't cause them trouble is their utterly puny teeth. Axolotls are carnivorous and suck up just about any meat product that can physically fit their head.

They also come in a range of colours to suit your handbag, tie or socks. There are black ones, white ones, brown ones, mottled ones and ones with a golden sheen. That last one for the tasteless dictator in you, perhaps.

This little trooper faces a host of challenges in Mexico, their only native habitat. Today they exist only in a greatly diminished and polluted Lake Xochimilco. Other water bodies they once lived in have been drained in an effort to stop flooding, a process that began with the Aztecs. The future looks quite bleak, with new, non-native fish competitors and nearby Mexico City's (population 9 or 21 million depending on your "city" definitions) increasing demands.

It seems likely that the day will come when only captive bred Axolotls remain. These are popular not only in the pet trade but also the lab. You see, Axolotls have absolutely amazing regeneration abilities. They can regrow entire limbs and even spinal and brain tissue. A whole leg can be regrown in a few weeks without a hint of scarring! It's hoped we will one day learn to do the same in hospital, with huge ramifications for healthcare and extreme sports.

We must be glad to have discovered all this before we wiped them out forever. Soon we'll be lopping off each other's limbs without a care in the world, all thanks to an overgrown baby salamander with a goofy grin.

Image: brian.gratwicke via Flickr


Anonymous said...

YES! A favorite creature of mine (thanks for giving much more info than I've posted about these little guys!).

Anonymous said...

I have two of these myself, and I love them to death.

For a salamander, they've got nasty little tempers around each other. Even though they may not have teeth, they can still chomp off the tips of each others' tails.

Joseph JG said... Ah! Glad you enjoyed it! Also glad I stumbled across one of your favourites!

@Erik J. Awesome: Cool! I didn't know they had tantrums around each other. Biting each others tails? Ouch!

Anonymous said...

Thanks a lot for reminding me of these little monsters! The white ones are extremely cute, I should create a big lake for them when I get rich! (or at least a big aquarium)

And the smile on the first picture! Lol!

Joseph JG said...

You're welcome! Yeh, they're real sweethearts. I hope you get that lake!

TexWisGirl said...

so dang cute!!!

Joseph JG said...

I know! It's quite an achievement for a salamander!

Crunchy said...


i herd u liek mudkipz

Joseph JG said...

Hahaah! Oh jeez... I had to look that up and now I know more about lieking mudkipz than I ever thought possible.

Danielle Rosenstein said...

Is there any organization(s) involved in helping them/fixing their habitat?

Joseph JG said...

It's surprising difficult to find any. I thought there would be The Axolotl Charity somewhere, but there doesn't appear to be anything like that.

I did find Toronto Zoo talking about their involvement:

and defra:

and some research on the issue:

It looks like things are going on.

Joseph JG said...

Terrible :(

BK said...

Worse, most captives have been bred for colour morphs so cannot be used as a broodstock.

If only more people kept the wild-type axolotls....

Joseph JG said...

I'm sure at least some people are aware of the issues. Hopefully enough