Critically Endangered Salamanders Saved From The Brink Of Extinction By Mexican Nuns

Sisters are doing it for the salamanders. Chester Zoo/Michoacana University

A critically endangered salamander has just received some divine intervention. Conservationists in Mexico have teamed up with an order of nuns to save the rare Lake Pátzcuaro salamander from extinction.

The amphibians (Ambystoma dumerilii) are only found in a single lake in central Mexico called Lake Pátzcuaro, but their numbers have crashed to such a degree that the International Union for the Conservation of Nature now consider them to be “critically endangered”. Related to the more well-known axolotl, they are also of interest for their limb-regenerating abilities.

At one point, the salamanders thrived in the lake, but the natural population has been devastated by a combination of threats. The introduction of exotic fish, the destruction of the forests that once covered the hills altering the lake’s shoreline, and over-exploitation by locals hunting them for food mean that fewer than a hundred are thought to survive in the wild.

While it looks similar to the axolotl, the Lake Pátzcuaro salamander is actually a separate species. Chester Zoo/Michoacana University

But over the last 150 years, they’ve had an unlikely savior. You see, the salamanders are prized locally as an integral part in producing a traditional cough medicine, and after realizing that the salamander’s numbers were in decline, an order of nuns started to breed the salamanders at their monastery.

The monastery sits on the edge of the lake in which the salamanders once thrived. Chester Zoo/Michoacana University

It turns out that this colony of Lake Pátzcuaro salamander is the most genetically significant in the world, and now conservationists from the UK’s Chester Zoo and Mexico’s Michoacana University are enlisting the help – and the knowledge – of the nuns to save the species from the brink of extinction.

“After visiting Mexico in 2014 we had the unique opportunity to meet the nuns who are keeping the species in their monastery and we now believe that the population they are looking after is one of the most genetically viable populations in the world,” explains Dr Gerardo Garcia, the zoo’s curator of lower vertebrates and invertebrates, in a statement.

The unlikely alliance between scientists and sisters. Chester Zoo/Michoacana University

“The nuns deserve enormous credit in keeping this species alive,” Dr Garcia continues. “Now, in partnership with the Sisters, a European network of zoos and the University of Michoacana in Mexico, we are fighting to breed a thriving population for eventual reintroduction back into the wild.”

The researchers have begun an assessment of the salamander population remaining in the lake, including testing water quality and food availability. They have also teamed up with local fishermen, and the sisters will continue to play a vital role in making sure there is a viable and genetically diverse population that can eventually be reintroduced.

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