Axolotls are becoming very popular aquarium pets because of their unique and cute appearance with the flowing mane of gills attached to their head.
They have even been named ‘Toothless’ a lot because they resemble the infamous cartoon dragon.
You would think, because of their popularity, there would be thousands upon thousands of axolotls, but I have some surprising news for you.
Axolotls have been classified as a critically endangered species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and”face an extremely high risk of”extinction”in the wild since their wild population is so low and declining rapidly.
Wow! What in the water world is going on here?
How are they going to become popular aquarium pets if they become extinct?
Let me explain…
Why Are Axolotls Endangered?
If axolotls are so popular, then why are they endangered? Well, the endangerment refers to the wild axolotl, not captive-bred axolotls that we call pets.
There are several reasons leading to the endangerment of axolotls.
Axolotls are endangered because of:
- Human Development
- Waste Water Disposal and Pollution
- Invasive Species
These are all caused by citizens in the canals of Mexico City’s Xochimilco district. These canals used to be lakes where the axolotl originated. Several of the factors listed above have destroyed the large habitat that axolotls once lived in.
This reason for axolotl endangerment is easy to explain. Citizens from Mexico City have already drained Lake Chalco, one of the major lakes that axolotls used to live in, using it for the municipal water supply.
Lake Xochimilco is almost drained, being reduced to canals that the axolotl now lives in.
Waste Water Disposal and Pollution
Aside from draining Lake Xochimilco, something else rather strange is happening. This is best summed up by biologist Luis Zambrano,
The second threat is trickier. Every time a powerful storm fills the city’s ageing sewer system, treatment facilities release human waste into Xochimilco, carrying with it ammonia, heavy metals and untold other toxic chemicals.
Amphibians, which breathe in part through their highly permeable skin, are”vulnerable to these regular pollution dumps. It’s a testament to the animal’s resilience that it exists in the wild at all.www.smithsonianmag.com
In addition to citizens draining the wild axolotl’s water, droughts also contribute to the lake waters drying up. All waters evaporate, so when a drought hits even if the lakes weren’t being drained the water level would still decrease.
As if droughts, drainage, and pollution weren’t enough, people also eat axolotls!
They can’t win! Axolotls are considered a delicacy in Mexico City and other parts of the world so they are actively fished for local supply and are exported
This issue is also best summed up by biologist Luis Zambrano,
Zambrano says that to save the wild axolotl, policymakers must address its two primary threats.
The first is non-native fish such as the common carp (Cyprinus carpio) and tilapia (Oreochromis niloticus).
Ironically, these were introduced to Xochimilco in the 1970s and 1980s through programs run by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, with the aim of getting more protein into local diets. Zambrano says he has mapped the areas where axolotls still remain; he envisions a team of local fishers being paid to sweep them of fish on an ongoing basis.
Although this wouldn’t remove all the fish, for a few hundred thousand dollars it might give the salamanders a window in which to re-establish themselves.
His work has shown that axolotls are most vulnerable to carp when they are at the egg stage, and to tilapia when they are juveniles, but reveals that if they can grow beyond a certain size, they might still thrive.www.smithsonianmag.com
This is a problem with the captive-bred species that you find in your aquariums.
The captive-bred species all originated from small groups of axolotls so, they are too closely related when bred with each other.
Just like humans, this is a bad thing. It causes the axolotls to have a different type of gene than the wild axolotls, which makes the captive-bred axolotls more susceptible to disease.
It may not seem like a big deal but if we end up with nothing but captive-bred axolotls, it means they would be more susceptible to large populations being wiped out.
The problem is, having captive populations of axolotls is not enough, says”Randal Voss, a biologist at the University of Kentucky.
Voss, who maintains a collection of axolotls for distribution to labs around the world as Resource Director of the”Ambystoma Genetic Stock Center, knows the problem intimately.
When he looks at his pedigree records, he knows the stock is inbred and thus has less genetic diversity due to the mating between related animals.In one sense, a homogeneous stock can be good for science, as it is much more likely to facilitate reproducible studies.
“On the other hand, it can compromise the health of a captive population,” Voss explains. Captive populations are more vulnerable to catastrophe.
Disease, or even an accidental fire, could wipe out an entire lab population almost instantaneously.
Between the inbreeding and efforts to cross the axolotl with the tiger salamander to introduce some genetic diversity, the collection is also very different than the wild populations; not only are their genomes different, but they are highly domesticated and adapted to humans.www.smithsonianmag.com
What Would Happen If The Axolotl Went Extinct?
Axolotls are being studied extensively by scientists because of their ability to completely regenerate their entire body including parts of their brain.
When humans lose a limb, it is gone. All we grow is skin or scar tissue to cover the wound. When axolotls lose a limb, they can completely regrow it just as it was.
There is something called genome sequencing in which scientists are trying to figure out the code for the genes of the axolotl. It is even more difficult because as described above the genes are different between captive-bred and wild axolotls
Scientists need the genetic code for the wild axolotl before they go extinct if they have any hope of figuring out the regenerative power of the axolotl and applying it to humans.
If all axolotls went extinct we wouldn’t have them for aquarium pets anymore, but if wild axolotls go extinct then we may never be able to apply their power of regeneration to humans.
And because axolotls don’t go through metamorphosis, they”don’t depend on the seasons and other environmental factors”for breeding. That means scientists can breed them throughout the course of the year. Axolotls may also offer insight to the genetic controls that regulate the switch in life for processes like puberty.www.smithsonianmag.com
How Many Axolotls are Left in The World?
There are several wide-ranging articles on the internet saying how many axolotls are left. They all agree on one thing – there are less than 1000 axolotls left in the world.
This is just the wild population though. There are far more axolotls in captivity than there are in the wild.
If you read the entire post, we identified that the wild population is much more important to save from endangerment than the captive species because of their regenerative abilities and what it can mean for the human race.
How To Save Axolotls?
The picture may seem a bit grim but there is good news and hope. Let’s look at some ways to help axolotls and what is being done currently to save these unique creatures.
Pets and Laboratories.
Axolotls are the most scientifically studied salamanders in the world. They have been examined for decades and many of them are being kept and taken care of in laboratories.
Axolotls have become an important lab model – for studying everything from tissue repair to cancer – due to their unique ability to regenerate severed limbs. Because of these studies, there are currently thousands of axolotls alive and well in labs.
Maybe not as common as regular fish, axolotls are kept as pets in hundreds and thousands of aquariums in households around the world. With proper equipment and care, it is very easy to take care of one and they are not demanding. Keeping them alive and healthy at home is of extreme importance due to their ever-declining population.”
One way to recover the axolotl population in the wild is by reintroducing all lab specimens back into the wild.
Controlled Ponds and Canals.
A handful of scientists are doing their best to preserve axolotls in the wild. They are breeding and releasing axolotls into controlled ponds and canals around Xochimilco, hoping to gradually restore numbers in their natural environment. “
Involving the Government.
Preserving any species in the wild requires active involvement from the local government. Unfortunately, the government authorities in the Mexico Basin are still not involved enough with the cause of saving axolotls.
Various NGOs and individuals in the areas are actively working to raise awareness of what draining, urbanization, and pollution are doing to axolotls.
They run different information campaigns, organize initiatives for cleaning, and place signs around the lakes alarming the public about axolotls’ situation.
Now that you know axolotls are endangered, why, and how to save them, maybe you can help.
Their aquarium is easy to set up and you can either buy them online or through your local pet store.
They can’t be handled or petted much if any but they can still be great pets.
Many owners have taught their axolotls to do basic tricks and to eat from their hands.
Owners have reported their axolotl, swimming back and forth in the aquarium when the owner is in the room, tapping on the glass when the owner is in the room, and even laying in the owner’s hand in the aquarium.
Be that unique person and help save an axolotl today!