Have you ever heard of an Axolotl?

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The Axolotl is Mexico’s aquatic salamander that has a slimy tadpole looking tail, feathery gills that look like antlers, and mouth that curls into a smile. Many people recognize them in their pet trade version as leucistic (pale pink with black eyes) or albino (golden, tan or pale pink with pink eyes), but  in the wild they are brown and with dark spots to aid in camouflage. These soft bodied cuties walk along the bottom of lake, hunting for aquatic insects, small fish and crustaceans, which have given them their colloquial name “walking fish”. These unique creatures were once abundant in the many lakes historically found where present day Mexico City is built. They were so abundant that Axolotl were a staple in the Aztecs diet, being sold in large numbers in markets around Lake Xochimilco where they were caught. Aztec legends speak of origin of Axolotl as being the dog-headed Aztec god of death, Xolotl, who feared he was about to be banished or killed by other gods so decided to and changed into an Axolotl to flee into the lake.

Sadly, Axolotl are currently listed by as endangered by IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature)  due to urbanization in Mexico City, competition from invasive game fish( carp and tilapia), and increasing water pollution. Previous surveys in 1998, 2003 and 2008 had found 6000, 1000 and 100 Axolotls, respectively, per square kilometer in the Lake Xochimilco habitat, but more recently a three month long search in 2013 turned up no  individuals in the wild.

Biologist Luis Zambrano of Mexico’s National Autonomous University says researchers are planning a second three month hunt for the creatures, some of which may then be caught and raised in captivity to try and increase their population numbers. The searches this time will take place in the cold season, which is thought to bring more success as it is when they come out to breed. Alarmed by the creature’s falling numbers in recent years, researchers built Axolotl “shelters” in Lake Xochimilco. These shelters consist of sacks of rocks and reedy plants that act as filters around a selected area and better protect the Axolotls from invasive species. Cleaner water is also pumped in, to create better conditions.

In the wild, the breeding season is from December to June, and probably controlled by the water temperature. The male deposits small packets of sperm, about 25 per night, and leads the female over to them with his pheromones. If the female is interested she will pick up several of these packages to fertilize the eggs inside her. Egg laying occurs approximately 24 hours later where 300 to 1,100 eggs can be layed in one spawning period. Each egg has a gelatinous coat that will help it stick to plants, sticks, and make them taste gross to predators. After two weeks, the larva will have developed small feathery gills, front legs, and a long tail. Within another two weeks, it will have developed hind legs and finally hatches as a miniature version of its parents.

Axolotls are pretty cool as they communicate with other axolotls with both visual and  chemical cues. They can also detect electrical fields to investigate their environment and to discover prey. In the mid 1800s, they came to the attention of scientists in Paris, France, because of their regenerative capabilities (i.e. re-grow body parts lost in skirmishes), which lead to their domestic/pet trade versions to be one of the most widely studied animals in the world in embryology, neurobiology and regeneration.

The Toronto Zoo is helping axolotls by ongoing participation to help develop conservation actions with Mexican partners that help the conservation of the Axolotl. Actions developed include long term biological monitoring and research on Lake Xochimilco including ecotoxicology of lake sediments, impacts and control of introduced species, and pathology studies of captive and wild Axolotl populations. Other actions include the creation of outreach programs for local zoos, and collaborating with local food producers, farmers (chanamperos), boat operators and fishermen to restore traditional agricultural practices, restore habitat, and promote Axolotl conservation awareness through eco-tourism.

If you want to see an Axolotl for yourself, visit the Toronto Zoo’s America’s Pavilion where they are on display. The perfect time to visit is this Sunday (Feb 2nd 2014) during Adopt-A-Ponds World Wetlands Day celebrations!

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