Because the axolotl is not what we all imagine it to be

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L’axolotl (or solo), as we know it, with those colors from white to pink or yellow, is actually one of the biggest fakes in the animal world. Reason? Because the true axolotl, wild, is gray-brown with shades from yellow to green: it is the variant with the most suitable characteristics for survival in the wild.


So what happened to him? In fact, the very colorful axolotl is the result of a captured selection, created by us humans for commercial purposes. In practice, we have bred axolotls with a very rare genetic condition to obtain colorful offspring that we have practically never seen in the wild. This selection also results in the leucistic axolotl, another very common variant.

The legend of a surprising animal

The wild axolotl is an amphibian that can only be found in one place in the world today: v Lake Xochimilcoin Valley of Mexico. In this area, it is considered a magical, even divine animal: according to the legend of the Aztecs, the people who inhabited this region of Mexico for a long time, the god of lightning and fire, Xolotl, he would have to sacrifice himself and throw himself into the flames to allow the Sun and Moon to move across the sky. However, in order to escape his fate, he takes on the appearance of various plants and animals, including the axolotl, the last species into which he transforms and remains forever.

The axolotl is the Peter Pan of amphibians

Its scientific name is Ambystoma mexicanum and it is a kind of salamander, but it differs from other kinds in the quality of eternal youth—that is why it is divine. In fact, while almost all salamander species undergo metamorphosis at some point in their lives and become adults, the axolotl remains bold forever Young. Becoming an adult would mean losing gills and starting to breathe through lungs while living without water, but our little wasp stays in water all its life. The gift of eternal youth is precisely one of his properties most studied by science. This condition is defined neoteny and requires these animals to spawn from eggs and remain forever in a larval state, as if to stop time. But where is the trick? As always in evolution: just look at extreme conditions of the natural environment in which it lives, i.e. dry and hot with often stagnant water, therefore with very little oxygen. Therefore, the axolotl holds its long outer gills tightly to be able to find what little oxygen is available. And there is also a lack of food: the larva needs less food and less energy. So it saves money, a bit like a low-energy light bulb. And despite the neotenic state, they can reproduce easily.


Axolotl can transform

For a long time, everyone was convinced that his neoteny was a permanent feature, but in reality this is not true. Indeed, in 1864 a French zoologist August Dumeril he was literally surprised by the asolotto specimens entrusted to his care, when one fine day he saw them different, transformed, because they had passed metamorphosis into adulthood, terrestrial. Duméril spent his life searching for an explanation, but died without answers. Today, however, we have an answer: in short, if an axolotl finds itself in an environment it perceives as inhospitable, which is no longer functional for it, it transforms and enters the adult stage. It is adaptive response in fact. However, once they transform, their lives can unfortunately be very short if they have spent a long time in their larval stage. They can generally live up to 15 years in favorable conditions.

And as if all these superpowers weren’t enough, the axolotl is also a master of regeneration. He can regenerate entire parts of his body: from gills to legs and even his brain!

Why could the axolotl become extinct?

However, it is a shame that this incredible species is in serious risk of extinction. It is only found in Lake Xochimilco, where it is threatened by heavy pollution and invasive fish such as carp and tilapia. In the last two decades, the population density of axolotls dropped by 99.5% and today it is estimated that only a few hundred wild specimens remain. Wild, precisely because the number of specimens is increasing, if we take into account those in captivity. But even if it thrives in aquariums and laboratories, the problem remains that strict selection modifies the species and also makes it more susceptible to disease. Therefore, to get real axolotls back, one solution could be to reintroduce part of the population to their natural habitat, but until Lake Xochimilco is cleaned up, returning them to their place would be a death sentence.


In Italy, the axolotl is popular for its very special aesthetic appearance, and in fact there are many people who want to have it in their aquarium as if it were a pet. But it is important to remember that, like all wild animals, the axolotl also has ethological needs strongly linked to its habitatprecisely because it is a form that has evolved to stay in a specific environment, and therefore keeping it at home is very risky for its survival.

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