For some people, the slithering, slime-coated axolotl is a creature one would not normally like to bump into… much less in the water. For the ancient Aztec rulers of what is today’s Mexico City’s, this creature was a divine being, the twin brother of Quetzalcoatl, the Feathered Serpent himself.
Their slightly outlandish appearance aside, today axolotls are a threatened species of amphibian that can only be found in the waters of the Xochimilco borough of Mexico City, a place that in present day holds what is left of an Aztec network of canals that connected different parts of the Valley of Mexico. It is considered now as a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
Gifted with fascinating amphibian features, the axolotl is able to reach adulthood without undergoing metamorphosis and has an astounding ability to regeneration. Remarkably, this trait is not limited to their limbs. Vital organs such as the heart and parts of the brain can also be re-grown.
They also seem to live as perpetual adolescents. “Axolotls are interesting beyond regeneration because they seem to cheat aging”, said biologist Randal Voss, who leads the Salamander Genome Project at the University of Kentucky. Quoted in an article in Al-Jazeera, he described how “they retain juvenile features, such as their skin and gills, until they die.”
Scientists believe that learning about the axolotl’s RNA sequence could be the key, not only to saving human lives by regenerating tissue, limbs and spinal cord – it may also lead to the prevention of aging.
The Secret May Be Lost Forever
Unfortunately, recently there has been a dramatic decrease in this creature’s population. The National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) published a study regarding this species’ numbers, revealing alarming results:
In 1998 the waters of Xochimilco held approximately 6,000 axolotls per square kilometer. Only ten years later, in 2008, the number of specimens found in the same habitat was reduced to only 100 per square kilometer. In 2014 there was in fact less than one per square kilometer.
This appears to be the result of urbanization, water pollution and the invasion of exotic fish like carp and tilapia, introduced in the early 80s with the intention of helping feed the local communities.
Awareness is growing among the local fishermen who are playing a crucial role in this species’ survival, by restoring the area’s flora and fauna, recovering trash from the canals and cooperating with ecologists.
Even though axolotl numbers have been critically reduced to a few specimens, there’s still hope for this ancient relative of the ancient Aztec gods. Maybe saving the Mexican salamander will allow science to develop a way to prolong human life… perhaps even indefinitely.