The Axolotl, Mexico's 'Water Monster,' May Have Disappeared From Its Only Natural Habitat

By Josh Lieberman on January 29, 2014 1:28 PM EST

axolotl
The axolotl may have gone extinct in the wild. A recent survey of Lake Xochimilco, the creature's only natural habitat, yielded not a single axolotl. (Photo: Reuters)

It may be time to pour one out for the axolotl, the strange-looking "water monster" that inhabits--or used to inhabit--Lake Xochimilco, outside of Mexico City. Millions of the salamander-like creatures used to live in the lake, which has become polluted by the sewage and sprawl of Mexico City. The axolotl's grim prognosis comes from biologist Luis Zambrano of Mexico's National Autonomous University, who said that a recent three-month survey of the Lake Xochimilco failed to yield even one axolotl. 

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Fewer and fewer axolotls have shown up in surveys of Lake Xochimilco in recent decades. A 1998 survey found about 6,000 of the creatures per square kilometer; in 2003, researchers found only 1,000 axolotls per square kilometer, a figure that plummeted to only 100 in 2008. One biologist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico concluded in 2012 that the creature was "about to go extinct."

Although the most recent axolotl survey turned up zilch, officials aren't ready to declare the water monster extinct in the wild quite yet. According to Tovar Garza of National Autonomous University. Researchers will start a three-month search in February; searching the canals of Lake Xochimilco once again is necessary because "now we are in the cold season, with lower temperatures, and that is when we ought to have more success with the axolotls, because it is when they breed," Garza said.

In recent years, researchers built rock-and-plant shelters in Lake Xochimilco to protect axolotls. The shelters have clean water pumped into them and they protect vulnerable axolotls from carp and tilapia, non-native fish that were introduced to the lake in the 1980s to create fisheries (it didn't work). Not only do carp and tilapia compete for food with axolotls, but they like to dine on axolotl eggs.  

The scarcity of axolotls in Lake Xochimilco has at least led to one fewer predator: humans. In 2008, a 32-year-old Mexico City fisherman told the AP that he "used to love axolotl tamales" when he was a kid. The fisherman said that he and others stopped eating axolotls when they became almost impossible to find. 

A close relative to the tiger salamander, axolotls can grow to between six inches to a foot long and live up to 15 years. Unlike other salamanders, they live exclusively underwater, rarely emerging from the lowest depths of Lake Xochimilco. The creature also plays a role in Aztec mythology: when Xolotl, a dog-headed god of the underworld, believed that other gods were going to kill him, he turned himself into an axolotl and hid in a lake. 

If there's one silver lining, it's that axolotls aren't in danger of going extinct: there are plenty of them in captivity and they're easy to breed. Axolotls in the wild, though, may be history. 

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