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DYK – Axolotl’s are Aztec Water Monsters

DYK – Axolotl’s are Aztec Water Monsters

The Cuddliest Water Monsters Ever!

I will fully admit, these adorable little water creatures may not be to everyone’s liking.  Some people, for whatever reason, just can’t stand amphibians, reptiles, or otherwise generally small scaly or slimy creatures.

I, however, am not one of those people.

When I was a kid my cousin had several snakes, including a rather large cream and orange-colored python of some description called ‘Peaches’.  I loved playing with that snake.  Well… playing may not be the most accurate description.  It was more a combination of awkward handling and very intense staring at a rather large constrictor capable of strangling the life out of my tiny body.  I thought Peaches happened to be adorable.   Until of course I found the ‘rat-cicles’ in the freezer.  But that’s a story for a different time.

Axolotl’s are not Peaches.  These tiny little salamanders are so cute, they are actually the inspiration behind a beloved Pokemon! 

I won’t include an image of the Pokemon in question due to the potential for copyright but, well, its name starts with the letter ‘M’ and sounds like -udkip.  Google can take it from there.  

So what are these strange little salamanders you’ve never heard of?  Maybe we should start at the beginning.

What Are Axolotl’s?

According to legend, these creatures get their name from the ancient and powerful Aztec god of lightning and death, ‘Xolotl’, who watched over the sun as it traveled through the underworld each night.  Xolotl was also the god of monsters and, in order to avoid being used as a sacrifice, transformed himself into the Aztec ‘Water Monster’ to hide from the other gods.  Which, considering they average around 9 inches long (including the tail), is an awfully big legacy to carry on such tiny shoulders.

Also known as ‘Mexican Walking Fish’, Axolotl’s aren’t actually fish at all, but salamanders.  They are amphibians, in the same family as frogs and toads.  In fact, if you look closely, you can see how axolotl’s and tadpoles in late development share a close resemblance.  Both live in the water, both have working gills but, most noticeably, both axolotl’s and tadpoles have fully functioning limbs and similar tails used for swimming.  Unlike tadpoles, however, these little salamanders will never grow out of their aquatic tails and move onto dry land. 

In normal animal evolution, the axolotl would be what is called a ‘larval’ stage.  Eventually, this animal should grow up, change shape, and move on out into a brave new world much like it’s relatives, Mr. Frog and Mr. Toad.  Or like a certain hungry caterpillar, the axolotl would be more comparable to a cocoon.  Axolotls have vestigial teeth (tiny baby teeth that aren’t really used) which indicate that, at one point in time, axolotl’s may have had a second stage of development.  But, as it is, our tiny little salamander friends remain in their tail and leg tadpole bodies for their entire lives.  They live, grow, reproduce, and die without ever undergoing the changes that their amphibian relatives do.

Where do Axolotl’s Live?

Axolotl’s used to be common in several lakes in the Mexico Basin. However, due to urban development in Mexico City, rising water pollution, and the introduction of invasive species of fish like perch, carp, and tilapia, Axolotl’s are critically endangered. In fact, today Axolotl’s only live in one place, Lake Xochimilco, which has been drastically reduced and is mostly just canals. In addition, Tiger Salamanders, which do mature to live on land as they are older, are nesting in the same limited environment, crowding already limited resources.

Why are Axolotl’s Important?

Axolotls are important for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is their role in medical science.

Axolotls are a ‘model organism’, which means that in learning more about them we can learn more about a lot of biological phenomena that help us understand the workings of other creatures – including ourselves. Axolotl’s help us understand the inner workings of certain heart and neural tube defects. Axolotl embryos are very large and relatively easy to manipulate, allowing scientists to watch a vertebrate organism develop right before their eyes. Their genetic code is ten times longer than human beings and is the largest animal genome mapped so far!

The most impressive aspect of Axolotls for scientists, however, is their ability to regrow almost any limb, in its entirety, when severed or damaged. Most lizards can regrow their tails, and starfish can regrow legs. But Axolotl’s are the only vertebrate animal capable of regrowing damaged legs. In some circumstances these stubborn little salamanders have actually both regrown a replacement limb and healed the original limb, leaving the axolotl with an extra appendage. In addition, axolotl’s are one of the few species capable of accepting limb and even brain transplants from other axolotls. If this can be applied to humans, we would be able to regrow limbs for amputees, cure birth defects and treat brain trauma in ways which, today at least, we can only dream of.

We still have a lot to learn from Axolotl’s, as we do from many other plant and animal species. Unfortunately for us and them, we are destroying their habitat’s faster than these creatures ability to adapt to the changes in their surroundings.

If we as human beings don’t start taking more responsibility and change how we treat the world around us, who knows how many amazing creatures will be gone before we even knew they were there? There certainly won’t be any axolotl’s left, that’s for sure.

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