Ximena López
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The Fascinating World of Axolotls

— Ximena López

Axolotls are marvelous and adorable creatures that have become increasingly popular in recent years, making appearances in games like Minecraft. But how much do we really know about them?  

Axolotls are sometimes called “walking fish,” but this name is misleading. They are actually a species of salamander, native to the lakes of Xochimilco in Mexico City. Their name comes from Nahuatl, an Aztec language. They are named after the Mexica deity of Xólotl, who, according to legend, disguised himself as a salamander to avoid being sacrificed by his brothers. 

Axolotls can live up to 25 years and measure up to 25 centimeters. They feed on mollusks, worms, crustaceans, insect larvae, and even certain kinds of fish. They come in all shades, including brown, black, and pink. Axolotls aren’t actually born with legs, only developing them at a week old. They can also breathe in three different ways: through their gills, lungs or skin. In particular, their gills provide them with oxygen to breathe underwater. Axolotls differ from most other salamanders in that they live permanently in the water; in extremely rare cases, an axolotl will progress to maturity and emerge from the water, but in general, they are content to remain on the bottom of the lakes and canals of Xochimilco. 

Scientists are amazed by axolotls for many reasons. Unlike most salamanders who undergo metamorphosis, an axolotl retains its larval characteristics for most of its life, which accounts for unique tadpole features, like feathery gills and a long, thin dorsal fin (located on its back). Axolotls also have the ability to heal and regenerate any part of their bodies without leaving a scar. When an axolotl suffers an injury, its body is able to regenerate the injured body part, whether that be an entire limb, a spine, or even the brain or heart. This miraculous process only takes a couple of months. These creatures can also accept organ transplants from other salamanders, a trait that makes them intriguing in the field of medical research.

Unfortunately, these incredible creatures are currently in critical danger of extinction. They are threatened by the introduction of invasive species to the lakes of Xochimilco, the overexploitation of the natural resources in their habitat, and the general water and air pollution of Mexico City. In 2019, there were only an estimated 50 to 1000 axolotls left in the wild. If we continue to treat axolotls the way we do now, we may only have ten years before they go extinct. 

Is there still salvation for this little animal that has been the protagonist of Mexican legends? Maybe, but only if we take steps to respect and restore their natural habitat, like filtering the polluted lakes of Xochimilco and preventing the introduction of invasive fish to their native waters.