WASHINGTON, January 30, 2014—Unique to the remaining lakes around Mexico City, the axolotl is a salamander. Also known as a Mexican river monster and the inspiration for Julio Cortázar’s unforgettable short story, the axolotl may be extinct in its natural habitat.
Also known as the Mexican walking fish, axolotl’s only natural habitat is the lake and canal network known as Xochimilco, around the Mexican capital.
The axolotl “is in serious risk of disappearing,” said biologist Armando Tovar Garza of the National Autonomous University in Mexico Tuesday.
After a four-month effort to capture the amphibians in the waters of Xochimilco last year, Tovar Garza and his team were unable to find a single specimen.
While a number of axolotl survive in research labs and aquariums around the world, experts do not think these are optimal conditions for the unusual creatures.
Axolotl use their short leg-like fins to move along the bottom of muddy waterways. They also use their strong tails to swim. Axolotl grow to up to one foot long and feed on small crustaceans and insects in the waters of Xochimilco.
Recently, the axolotl’s natural habitat has been shrinking, as humans increasingly inhabit the garden islands of Xochimilco, especially in illegal housing without proper sewage and water services.
The waste produced in these towns is discarded into the water, polluting the axolotl’s only habitat and reducing their numbers at an alarming rate. For example, in 1998 a survey by the Mexican Academy of Sciences found 6,000 axolotl on average per square kilometer. That number was reduced to 1,000 in 2003; and 100 in 2008. Today, it appears the number is down to zero.
Non-native carp and tilapia were also introduced into the waters of Xochimilco in recent years. These fish compete with axolotl for food and may also be contributing to their extinction.
Due to the many threats faced by the axolotl, researchers have begun to build axolotl shelters in the waters of Xochimilco. The shelters, built with rocks, grasses and reeds, help filter some of the pollution in the water and provide protection from non-native fish.
It may still be too early to declare the axolotl extinct in its wild habitat; Tovar Garza and his team will embark on another three-month search of the creatures starting in early February. Researchers are optimistic, since cold weather is when axolotl breed.
While this news is extremely sad for conservationists, it is also sad for literature lovers who remember Julio Cortázar’s magnificent short story entitled “Axolotl.”
There was a time when I thought a lot about the axolotl. I would visit them at the Jardín des Plantes and would spend hours looking at them, observing their immobility, their obscure movements. Now I am an axolotl. Read more...