By Wednesday Batchelor, Collections Management Trainee
Over the past couple of months I have had the opportunity to present two talks on topics that I am particularly interested in.
The first took place in December and was titled “Axolotls: Water Monsters of Mexico”. Axolotls are fascinating creatures, closely related to salamanders, which are native to just one lake system south of Mexico City, called Lake Xochimilco.
Axolotls are important in Mexican culture, as the animal is closely linked to the stories around Xolotl, the Aztec god of sickness, deformity, fire and lightening, and his brother Quetzalcoatl, god of wind, sun, science and learning. The Story of the Dawning of the Fifth Sun sees Tonatiuh, god of the fifth sun, needing sacrificial nourishment in order to rise. The other gods, Xolotl and Quetzalcoatl included, are expected to sacrifice themselves to sustain Tonatiuh. However, Xolotl is reluctant and hides in many forms, finally cowering in Lake Xochimilco as an axolotl. The ending of the story differs greatly from telling to telling; some say Xolotl was found and sacrificed, others say he became responsible for sacrificing the other gods and was then supposed to sacrifice himself. The other ending goes that Quetzalcoatl found and forgave Xolotl, but that he had to stay in lake Xochimilco and remain an axolotl forever.
Representations of Quetzalcoatl (left) and Xoltol (right)
Nowadays the axolotl plays an important role in science, with the ability to regrow limbs and repair serious damage through organogenesis.
Unfortunately, human intervention with Lake Xochimilco, including changes to the ecosystem and pollution, mean that axolotls in the wild suffer seriously. A study in 2003 found an average of 6000 axolotls per square kilometre in the lake. In 2015 that number was down to just 36 per square kilometre. In 2006 the species was declared critically endangered and it is very likely by now that they are extinct in the wild.
Thankfully, a project led by the Centre of Biological and Aquatic Research of Cuemanco (CIBAC) has worked to maintain a small, isolated population in a quarantined area of the lake; a final effort to keep the species alive in its natural habitat.