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Last updateFri, 09 Nov 2018 11am

On the trail of the amazing axolotl

I have the fortune of living close to an award-winning Mexican nature photographer who is becoming recognized – by prestigious organizations such as National Geographic – as one of the world’s great photojournalists.

pg8bHis name is Alejandro Prieto and the last time I talked to him he told me all about his successful project to photograph one of the world’s most elusive wild animals, the jaguar, in its native environment.

Now I am sitting down with Alex Prieto again to learn about the next hard-to-spot creature he has been focusing his camera on: Mexico’s extraordinary “Walking Fish,” the Axolotl (pronounced ajolote).

The species Ambystoma mexicanum is a kind of salamander which remains in its larval state all its life. It is not a fish at all, but it does have gills – feathery growths outside its body – as well as lungs. As if that were not enough, the axolotl can also breathe through its skin.

These abilities, however, pale before this amphibian’s true “super power:” it can regenerate not only its limbs, but just about every part of its body, including its heart and brain, for which reason Prieto calls it “the Peter Pan of exotic creatures.”

Naturally, these characteristics have made axolotls the subject of much research into ways to regenerate human body parts, especially since the recent sequencing of its complex genome. So you’d think the Mexican Walking Fish ought to be just about the most prized and protected creature on the planet – but if you had opened a newspaper a year ago you would have read that it was about to go extinct in its native habitat.

Why was such a thing allowed to happen?

pg8cThis was the question that occurred to Alex a year ago, when he decided to go find the answer for himself and, fortunately for the rest of us, to document and photograph everything he discovered.

To hear what Alex learned during his photo quest, I grabbed a machete and hacked my way through the vegetation-covered empty lot between my place and his.

“Why is the axolotl in trouble?” I asked him.

“First of all,” Alex said, “I should point out that the Ambystoma mexicanum is endemic to Mexico and found nowhere else. There are simply not a lot of them around to begin with. So the world was shocked not long ago when it was announced that the population of ajolotes in Lake Xochimilco – where they had thrived in pre-Hispanic times – had dropped from 6,000 per square kilometer in 1998 to only 35 in 2014, after which some researchers had claimed they couldn’t find any at all.”

The cause for this dramatic change, Alex told me, was simply loss of habitat. Mexico has some of the world’s most stringent laws forbidding water pollution, but rarely enforces them. Axolotls can only survive in clean water and Xochimilco had serious problems. But this is only half the problem. The other half is tilapia. This Middle-East-African fish has been introduced into the lake for commercial purposes. As it is an omnivore, it not only devours the axolotl’s food, it also eats their eggs.

Even though a few axolotls can still be found in this city-enclosed lake, the species will have a hard time rebounding despite a National Autonomous University initiative launched in May of this year.

pg8aAfter observing the situation in Xochimilco, Prieto sought out the habitats of other varieties of Ambystomas and soon found himself in western Mexico. He says, “I found a very beautiful kind of ajolote in Lake Zacapu in Michoacán. It’s called Ambystoma tigrinum and indeed it looks like a tiger. Unfortunately, this lake is suffering from an invasive water plant locally referred to as lirio, that covers the surface and removes oxygen from the water. In Lake Pátzcuaro, also in Michoacán, there is another species that I believe is the biggest of all and can reach a length of about 30 centimeters, a foot long. Unfortunately, pollution is a problem in both lakes and both species are considered endangered.”

Discovering that a new species of axolotl has recently been discovered in the Sierra de Manantlán Biosphere Reserve, Prieto went to this sanctuary, which straddles the border of the states of Colima and Jalisco and, for the first time, was able to photograph an Ambystoma swimming in unpolluted water.

“In Manantlán, the water’s clean but is also freezing cold, so I needed a diving suit of 7 mm neoprene,” Alex told me. “Another problem is that you often have to squeeze into tight spaces. On the other hand, it’s relatively easy to photograph axolotls because they’re not very active by day. They’re only on the move at night, when they’re hunting. They may look like they are always smiling, but when it comes to feeding or reproducing, they become very aggressive. They usually eat insects and larvae, but they are also cannibals and quite happy to eat another axolotl.”

The word Axolotl, I learned, means “The god who fears death,” perhaps indicating that the pre-Hispanic inhabitants of Mexico associated its ability to regenerate body parts with everlasting life.

“They had legends,” Prieto explained, “that this curious creature – often seen in their art – originated with a god who was chosen to be sacrificed but refused the honor and ran away. Finally, they say, he jumped into the water and was turned into an ajolote.”

Actually, the axolotl had no cause at all to fear death in pre-Hispanic times, but in the 21st century the amazing Mexican Walking Fish may have good reason to fear for its survival.

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