Now’s the opportunity to help one of Mexico’s iconic ‘water monsters.’ Animal lovers around the world can now virtually adopt an axolotl, an iconic fish-like amphibian. In late November, a group of ecologists from the National Autonomous University in Mexico City officially relaunched their “Adoptaxolotl” fundraising campaign to conserve the critically endangered axolotls.
The 2022 Adoptaxolotl campaign raised over $26,300 towards an experimental captive breeding program and efforts. The goal of the revived virtual adoption program is to restore habitat in the ancient Aztec canals in Xochimilco, a southern borough of Mexico City.
A virtual adoption costs $30 for one month, $180 for six months, or $360 for a full year. Donors can select the age, sex, and name of their watery friend. If salamander budgets are tight this year, donors can buy an axolotl a nice meal for $10. A $50 donation will go to repair one of their homes for $50. Starting at $450, donors with deeper pockets can adopt the axolotl’s refuge on the islands in Lake Xochimilco called chinampas.
While the axolotls will remain in their home in Mexico, donors will receive an adoption kit complete with an identification card, infographic, adoption certificate, and thank-you letter.
The Peter Pan of amphibians
Axolotls (Ambystoma mexicanum) are amphibians that, in the wild, are only found in Lake Xochimilco in Mexico City. They weigh only half a pound at their largest and are about a foot long. They primarily eat insect larvae, worms, fish, and small crustaceans. They are known by their feathery external gills on each side of their heads. While adult axolotls do have lungs, they still primarily rely on their signature gills to breathe.
After most amphibians like frogs grow out of their aquatic phase (tadpoles), they begin the rest of their lives living on land. However, these ‘Peter Pan of amphibians’ do not go through metamorphosis. Axolotls keep many of their larval characteristics and spend their adult life in the water.
According to Jeff Streicher, Senior Curator in Charge of Amphibians and Reptiles from London’s Natural History Museum, axolotls may have evolved this unusual life cycle because of their environment and the resources available.
“Axolotls are part of a group of closely related salamanders that have a range of lifestyles,” said Streicher. “Some can remain in the water if conditions on land are bad or can leave if, for example, the lake they live in starts to dry up.”
The god of fire and lightning
Axolotls are believed to be named after Xolotl, the Aztec god of fire and lightning. This mischievous deity can take on the form of a salamander to keep from being killed. The word ‘atl” is the term for water in the ancient Aztec language Nahuatl. Axolotl is generally translated to mean “water monster.” It can also mean “water dog” since Xolotl was also associated with dogs.
The animals have become a cultural icon in Mexico for their very unique appearance and Deadpool-like ability to regenerate its limbs. Scientists believe that studying their healing power may help create better methods to repair tissue or even treat cancer.
Why are axolotls endangered?
According to the scientists behind the fundraiser, the population density of Mexican axolotls has plummeted 99.5 percent in less than two years. Almost all 18 Mexican axolotl species are considered critically endangered. Their main threats include water pollution, the deadly chrytid fungus, and threats from non-native rainbow trout in the area.
The funds raised from the adoption program will go toward building refuges for the axolotl and restoring its habitats. National Autonomous University ecologist Luis Zambrano told The Washington Post that their habitats have been devastated by Mexico City’s urbanization efforts.
“A species can’t be a species without its habitat,” Zambrano said. “We went from 6,000 to 36 in less than 20 years. We need funds to conduct another census, but the outlook is grim. It’s more than likely that they’re nearly extinct.”
He added that losing the axolotl in the wild “would be incredibly bad for both Mexican culture and the science world.”