Mexico’s mythical salamander struggles in the wild

Sofia Castello and Tickell

Mexico City – Aztec legend has it that the first axolotl, the feathery-gilled salamander that once swarmed through the ancient lakes of this city, was a god who changed form to elude sacrifice.

But what remains of its habitat today—a polluted network of canals choked with hungry fish imported from another continent—may prove to be an inescapable threat.

"They are about to go extinct," said Sandra Balderas Arias, a biologist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico working to conserve axolotls in the wild.

The loss of this salamander in its habitat would extinguish one of the few natural links Mexicans still have with the city that the Aztecs built on islands in a network of vast mountain lakes. Its extinction in the wild could also erase clues for scientists studying its mystifying traits.

The Mexican axolotl is an odd-looking salamander with a flat head and spiked feet, unusual because it often spends its entire life in the so-called larval stage, like a tadpole, without ever moving to land.

"It grows and grows in the same shape, and has the capacity to reproduce," said the biologist Armando Tovar Garza. "We don't really know why it doesn't change."

But in their only home, the canals of Xochimilco in the far south of the city, the axolotls' decline has been precipitous. For every 60 of them counted in 1998, researchers could find only one a decade later, according to Luis Zambrano, another biologist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

Gliding on a flat-bottomed boat through the canals where the Aztecs once farmed floating gardens, but where cinder-block houses now dump their waste and students toss their beer cans during parties, Tovar described the threats.

"The axolotl is suffering on two fronts," he said. "One is the water quality. It's not improving."

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