Everyone loves the axolotl, the neotenic salamander with external gills that look like crazy hair and a sneaky little smile. For nearly a decade conservationists have been warning that these animals could be on the verge of vanishing. The Mexican Academy of Sciences has stated that after a recent attempt three months to survey the animals, they were not able to find a single wild specimen.
Axolotls are the typical textbook example for neoteny, which is when an animal reaches sexual maturity without completing the metamorphosis into a typical adult. A fully grown axolotl looks quite a bit like a salamander in the larval stage. They are endemic to central Mexico and were found in only two lakes. A fully grown axolotl grow to be about 23 cm (9 in), though some individuals have reached 45 cm (18 in).
Luis Zambrano of the National Autonomous University in Mexico recently completed a three-month-long survey around Lake Xochimilco and did not find any of the animals. In 1998, a similar survey netted about 6,000 individuals per square kilometer, but the number plummeted to 1,000 in 2003 and only 100 in 2008. The axolotls have been labeled as critically endangered since 2006, due to the small population size and declining trend.
Although no axolotls turned up during this last survey, declaring them extinct in the wild might be a bit premature, according to biologist Tovar Garza. A new three-month-long survey is set to begin in February during their breeding season. The entire area will be thoroughly searched again, with special attention paid to the canals, where they tend to accumulate in cold weather.
Without a doubt, humans have played an integral role in axolotl decline. It was a dietary staple for the Aztecs, back when millions filled the lakes. However, as Mexico City has been built up in recent years, the development and subsequent water pollution has irrevocably harmed the populations and choked them out. Some have tried to create sanctuaries for the amphibians with clean water added to sections that have been blocked off with rocks and heavy vegetation.
Though the axolotl may very well have been eliminated from its natural habitat, they are not gone from the face of the Earth. Axolotls have incredible regeneration abilities, and they are studied in many laboratories around the world as scientists try to better understand these limb regeneration mechanisms that do not exist in humans after fetal development.