Terry Fowler

The Axolotl Salamander: A Parable

There is a salamander in Mexico City called the axolotl, which is dangerously close to extinction. Its only habitat was a portion of the extensive system of wetlands in the high valley where this now immense metropolis is located.

These marshes and lakes supported an agriculture that was developed by the Aztecs. It fed first them and then the Europeans, who invaded in the sixteenth century, and who started the process of draining the water out of the area. As the city grew it gradually replaced the lakes and marshes with streets and buildings so that now only two percent of the wetlands are left. What remains is a piece of Xochimilco, one of the axolotl’s lakes, and it consists mostly of canals. Both tourists and natives come there in droves and ride in flat-bottomed boats on Sunday afternoons.

This is a version of the familiar story that cities often build over the fertile farmlands that attracted settlers to the location in the first place. The interesting twist in the narrative is the axolotl, which was not only an integral part of the ecosystem that supported the wetlands agriculture, but it is also famous for its ability to regenerate its legs, fins, backbone – even its heart cells. They grow back faultlessly, without scars.

The axolotl often spends its entire life in the larval, or tadpole, stage without ever developing strong legs that would allow it to survive on land. Nevertheless, it still has the capacity as an aquatic juvenile to reproduce.

Xochimilco’s remnants are in the extreme south of Mexico City. Here the visitor can find a few examples of the fascinating floating islands devised by the Aztecs to be their gardens and farms. At certain times of the year, the area serves as a rest stop for dozens of species of migrating birds. But visitors throw their beer cans into the water, and toilets of houses on the shore empty directly into the canals.

Perhaps no more than 100 axolotls per hectare can be found now in this tiny bit of their natural habitat, although there are thousands in research laboratories, in conservation areas, and even in peoples’ homes, where they are kept as exotic pets. One of the Mexican conservation biologists working to save the salamander, Dr. Luis Zambrano, believes that its ecosystem must be saved along with the animal, because of course each is a part of the other. He has managed to create a few refuges by blocking off canals so sewage-laden water and invasive fish species are kept out. He has also recruited a few farmers who are interested in practising the traditional agriculture without chemicals.

Seeking help for the project from the government is not too helpful, Zambrano said in an interview on CBC’s The Current, because elections are held every three years, which is the limit of a politician’s time horizon. Funding is notoriously uneven and sporadic. The perspective needed for saving the axolotl and its ecosystem is more like fifteen or twenty years. Dr. Zambrano found this kind of perspective among urban farmers and fishermen of southern Mexico City and others who valued the region’s agriculture and culture.

Conservation biologists’ campaign to save the axolotl illustrates the interweaving of ecology, agriculture, and cultural history – including folk medicine. Indigenous people use parts of the axolotl to help cure respiratory illness. It makes sense. Any animal that reproduces different parts of its body so effortlessly represents the very essence of healing. As well, when it was more plentiful, its meat was considered an especially tasty filling for tamales.

To the Mexicans, the salamander symbolizes Xolotl, a god who helped the dead on their journey to the afterlife. There is a legend that he “took the form of an axolotl to escape a death sentence imposed on him as the current universe was being created.”1 Interestingly, the Wikipedia entry on Xolotl states that he was also the god of sickness and deformities.

One lesson of this story was nicely expressed by Anna Maria Tremonti, the interviewer on CBC, who remarked that the regenerative capacities of the salamander symbolizes the regeneration of the culture and agriculture of Mexico City. Xochimilco has been mutilated, said Zambrano, and biologists are attempting to revitalize it in ways that parallel how different parts of the axolotl repair themselves. Garbage, human waste, and the unwanted exotic species such as tilapia and carp have to be cleaned out of the canals, along with the chemicals. An agriculture respecting the integrity of the wetlands must also be revived. And a human culture which reflects and celebrates the interrelationships that sustain an ecosystem needs to be remembered.

Another lesson of the campaign to save the axolotl and its habitat is that urban agriculture can play a role in feeding cities. Canadians and Americans are just starting to realize this fact, although the rest of the world has known it for centuries. Fitting food production into urban backyards is ecologically efficient, and it tends to use fewer chemicals because it’s right under the noses of consumers. Floating gardens could be a wonderful variation on this theme.

Trying to bring back the past is pointless. But, if this machine-based culture is going to survive, it has to recall its dependence on the networks of organisms that make our habitats so resilient.


“Saving endangered Mexican salamanders for medical breakthroughs,” CBC The Current, November 29, 2012

Richard Fausset, “In Mexico, the ajolote’s fate lies in troubled waters,” Los Angeles Times, October 1, 2012

Sofia Castello y Tickell, “Mythic Salamander Faces Crucial Test: Survival in the Wild,” New York Times, October 30, 2012

Wikipedia entries on Xolotl and Xochimilco