Friday, November 9, 2012

Mexico's Axolotl Salamander is Disappearing


One of the most charismatic amphibians, the Axolotl salamander (Ambystoma mexicanum), are struggling on the brink of extinction. This species claim to fame is it never leaves the larval tadpole stage that other salamanders progress through. They retain two sets of feathery gill appendages sprouting from the neck, giving them a goofy and alien appearance, like something out of Pok√©mon. Endemic to the” lakes” and water systems surrounding Mexico City, this salamander had a cultural value to the Aztecs as well as the current people. They were part of the Aztec diet and today are used in a folk remedy. Scientists are also using a captive population to study their regenerative properties. This captive population has flourished but natural populations are suffering a heavy decline.
Urbanization has decimated the aquatic systems surrounding Mexico City. Sewage, fertilizer, and trash are constantly being pumped into small waterways, this salamander’s preferred habitat. People don’t seem to care what goes into the water. According to a count performed in 1998 and then a decade later, only one in 60 survived. The Mexican government also dealt the Axolotl a bad hand by introducing nonnative fish, Tilapia and Asian Carp, to the canal system. This was done in an effort to feed the large poor population that borders the salamander’s habitat. These fish are reproducing out of control. They eat the plant that provides the preferred breeding grounds for the Axolotl as well as the young.
            The preservation of this species has provoked a debate in the scientific community. The intense habitat degradation and introduced fish seems like an unfix-able situation so some scientists are advocating creating new populations away from the city. Others disagree, stating that the presence of the Axolotl is vital to the ecosystem, as it was top predator before the fish. If the population were to flourish, it would indicate a healthy ecosystem. Dr. Zambano is behind this argument. His solution is two pronged, supporting safe agriculture practices and creating “tilapia-free” zones with special barriers. He has seen some success but on a small scale. Others are testing the viability of raising the salamanders in captivity and letting them back into the canals at a safe size. This has also shown promising results. Only time will tell if these fluffy slime monsters will make it.

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