The Axolotl, a Freak of Nature

The axolotl, also known as the walking fish or Mexican salamander, is a creature of supernatural abilities. You may be enthralled by their cute pink color and derpy toothless smile, but this water monster hides a plethora of secret abilities.

Contrary to common belief, the axolotl is not a fish, but an amphibian. It is a type of mole salamander which can trace its habitat back to Lake Chalco and Lake Xochimilco in Mexico. The reason they are widely popular in the scientific world is their regenerative abilities. Axolotls can perfectly regrow their limbs and other parts of their body without any trace of trauma or scarring. While other animals simply grow scar tissue if they have a limb cut off, axolotls can create multi purpose cells that become all the different types of tissue needed to recreate the limb. As a limb regrows, new blood vessels and nerves reattach until a brand new arm or leg is formed. Axolotls can not only regenerate limbs, but can regrow parts of their spinal cord and jaw. They can also reattach limbs. An axolotl’s leg can be amputated and placed on another axolotl and naturally, the limb will attach itself to the new body. A full limb isn’t even required, just a few cells can do the trick.

The capabilities of the axolotl have led to some morally compromising work. In a study published in Science Magazine in 1968 by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, scientists were able to successfully transplant an axolotl’s head onto the back of another axolotl. One subject lived for 65 weeks after the operation, with its second head growing right along with the first one. This unnatural hybrid is just one of many axolotls utilized as guinea pigs in the name of research and science. Although they can live the same amount of years as various mammals, their lives are often cut short to take part in atrocious experiments that test the depths of their near magical abilities.

Axolotls exhibit neoteny, a concept which consists of an organism going backwards rather than forwards in evolution. Instead of fully metamorphosing like the usual salamander, they retain their juvenile features such as gills, small lungs, and no teeth.

Axolotls have very long life-spans as they can live up 15 years! Speaking of 15, an adult axolotl can grow up to a size of 15 centimeters, that is half a ruler. They possess two front limbs as well as two back limbs and a tail. Like most salamanders, axolotls have very thin skin as they need to breathe through it. Their main breathing organs are their internal and external gills. The most noticeable ones are their external gills, which can be seen in the form of a type of feathery headpiece adorning their faces with tiny little gill rakers to filter out the water’s impurities. They also have a set of lungs, however, given that these animals remain in their larvae state for their whole lives, they never develop and are only used in case the water does not contain sufficient oxygen.

Axolotls have a mythological Aztec background. The myth goes that from the beginning of time, Aztec gods gathered around a fire where they had to sacrifice themselves to give way to the sun or moon. In one of these meetings was the god Quetzalcoatl’s twin brother, Xolotl. When it was Xolotl’s turn, he refused to sacrifice himself. Quetzalcoatl was enraged at this and sent others to capture Xolotl so he could be sacrificed. Xolotl escaped and transformed into various creatures to avoid being captured. Upon reaching Lake Xochimilco, he turned into an axolotl. Quetzalcoatl eventually found him and forgave him only after condemning him to remain in that form forever: as an axolotl, as a water monster.

While they will never go extinct in captivity, seeing as female axolotls can lay over 1,000 eggs, axolotls are critically endangered in the wild. According to biologist Luis Zambrano from the Autonomous University of Mexico, or UNAM, the axolotl population in lake Xochimilco has dropped from 1,500 per square mile in 1998 to only 25 axolotls per square mile in 2008 and 14 per square mile in 2014, the year of the last census. It is unknown how little are left today in 2018.

The axolotls the media knows and loves are the pink ones in captivity. Natural wild axolotls are originally a dark greenish brown or black with splotches. The pink ones that we see in captivity are known as “leucistic” and descend from a mutant male that was shipped to Paris in 1863. Since then, experiments have been made to create other mutant colors. These include golden, albino, melanoid, and even neon axolotls which you will only find in research labs.

With their supernatural skills, axolotls have managed to shape not only scientific research, but also fish tanks and entertainment all around the world.

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