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Saving a legendary aquatic monster

The Mexican Axolotl
A rare albinism-type Mexican Axolotl – Photo: Sam YEH/AFP
06/12/2017
18:39
Berenice González Durand
Mexico City
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"On both sides of the head, where the ears should have been, there were three red, coral-like twigs." This is a fragment of Axolotl, a short story by Julio Cortázar in which the author seems to mutate into this endemic Mexican species, an amphibian with tadpole appearance whose main characteristics are its ability to regenerate parts of its body, and its three pairs of feathery external gills protruding from the back of its head.

Their feathery gills are large and visible because in their habitats, muddy bottoms of lakes and channels, there is very little oxygen, explains the biologist Arturo Vergara Iglesias, Head of the Axolotl Intensive Breeding Area in the Cuemanco Aquaculture and Biological Research Center (CIBAC) of the Metropolitan Autonomous University (UAM) campus Xochimilco.

Vergara points out that when we refer to the axolotl we are actually speaking of 17 different species, yet the main species is Ambystoma mexicanum, popularly known as Mexican axolotl.

This species, in particular, is endangered, while the others are threatened or they are subject to special protection.

The natural habitat of the Mexican axolotl comprises Texcoco, Xochimilco, and Chalco aquifers, as well as its connections to Lake Zumpango and Lake Xaltocán.

For Dr. Luis Zambrano González, ecological restoration specialist of the Institute of Biology of the UNAM, the axolotl as a species is struggling since, in 1998, 6,000 specimens were recorded per square kilometer, while in 2014 there were only 36 specimens in the same area.

Both specialists agree that the main causes that have contributed to the decline in axolotl population are the reduction of their natural habitat caused by the urban sprawl, the existence of exotic species such as tilapia and carp introduced in the axolotl habitat in the 80s, pollution, and natural predation.

The lower basin has a rich biodiversity that includes large numbers of waterfowl such as pelicans, herons, kingfisher, and osprey. There is also a diversity of aquatic snakes and mammals such as weasels that now preys on them.

CIBAC has laid the foundations for the axolotl captive breeding in Mexico and currently between three and five thousand specimens are expected to be born every year.

Between 2013 and 2015 specimen reintroduction programs were developed to study uncontrolled groups.

Namely, in Xochimilco “the idea is that visitors will be able to learn about the environment in the area instead of just visiting the region for its mariachi and quesadillas," adding that Xochimilco is much more, “It is heritage and that is how it should be treated."

sg

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