What you’re looking at is a picture of a living, breathing earthly creature, not some George Lucas CGI space-alien invention.
Meet the axolotl — a critter so darn cute (with that quirky little smile, inquisitive eyes and frilly tiara around its head) that it has become a favourite of people who like to lodge their pets in aquariums.
And that’s a good thing, I guess, because the poor old axolotl (pronounced something like ax-so-LAW-tul) is now an endangered species, almost extinct in its natural environment.
That’s because the axolotl’s natural environment is the once-huge, high-altitude lakes of Xochimilco and Chalco on the central Mexican plateau.Those lakes are little more than names and memories now, eradicated by the spread of Mexico City’s exploding suburbs. Chalco, in fact, has been drained and does not exist at all except as a few bogs, while Xochimilco remains only as a series of canals interlacing the urban sprawl that has overwhelmed the lakes where once millions of axolotls thrived, providing a substantial food supply for the pre-Conquest Aztecs of the region.
The most recent attempts to document the wild population of axolotls put their numbers somewhere between the high hundreds and low thousands. And those census takings were done several years ago, so by now there may only be a few hundred axolotls trying to live the natural life in the polluted, receding waters of Xochimilco.
By contrast, the domesticated axolotl population is large and growing larger because of its appeal to both hobbyists and scientists.
So let me tell you a bit about the axolotl and the weird and wonderful things that make it so interesting and, yes, miraculous.
First of all the axolotl is an amphibian, like frogs, toads and salamanders.
Don’t confuse amphibians with reptiles, even if a salamander looks sort of like a lizard. To show you how different they are, consider this: Reptiles, like humans, have four-chambered hearts; an amphibian heart has only three chambers.
In the normal course of events, an amphibian goes through three stages of metamorphosis: From egg to gilled larva (the tadpole stage) to lunged adult, ready to move back and forth between water and earth environments.
What makes our friend the axolotl so unique is that, through a genetic fluke, this particular amphibian never makes the transition from the larva (gilled) stage to the adult (lunged) stage. Thus it remains a water creature its entire life and thus its strange, otherworldly appearance.
The axolotl is sometimes called the “Mexican walking fish” because it crawls around under the water, propelled by four legs and a strong tail. (The frilly tiara on its head is the gills, by the way).
A normal domesticated axolotl reaches sexual maturity somewhere between the ages of 18 months and 24 months and has a lifespan of 10-15 years.
Colour ranges from near-black to albino white with browns, yellows and mottled mixes available along the way. A variety known as leucistic, white with black eyes in blue settings, has become popular with hobbyists but golden albinos and chocolate-brown axolotls are big too. I guess it’s like a dog owner picking the colour of retriever she wants.
Size, you say?The axolotl ranges from six inches to 18 inches, but a normal adult is in the 10-12-inch range.
Surprised, aren’t you? I thought it was smaller than that too. It’s a pretty weird creature to be this foot-long thing crawling around in your bathtub.
To make it a little more ominous, the axolotl is a meat-eating carnivore, living on worms, tiny fish and the like. But it is a carnivore, so technically it’s not opposed to eating you too. Doesn’t look so cute anymore, does it?
Now for the really scary part: The largest documented axolotl ever found was just under 140 centimetres. That’s basically the size of an eight-year-old child. An alien-looking eight-year-old child crawling around under water with an inherent desire to eat flesh.
I want to tell you one more semi-weird thing about the axolotl before we get into the truly amazing stuff.
I told you the axolotl does not make the jump from the water-bound larva stage to amphibian adult because of a genetic fluke. That fluke or flaw, called neoteny, is caused by the lack of a thyroid-stimulating hormone (a fact discovered by much smarter people than you or me).
Those same smart people actually also figured out how to make the axolotl artificially morph from gilled tadpole to lunged amphibian (very similar to a tiger salamander).
They do it by injecting the axolotl with iodine, which stimulates the thyroid and kickstarts the metamorphosis process stalled by nature.
This is a practice in which I would advise the casual hobbyist not to engage; in fact I don’t think you crazy scientists should be monkeying around with stuff like that either. There’s just a little too much of Frankenstein experimenting with the very vitals of life for my liking.
And that gets us to the crux of matter: The axolotl’s strange, miraculous powers and the determination of the scientific world to unlock the secrets of that power.
What is this power? Nothing more or less than the ability to regenerate body parts.
Regenerate. That means when an axolotl’s leg gets bitten off by a fish, it can grow an entire new functional leg in a couple of weeks or months.
And not just limbs. The axolotl can regenerate skin, organs, even parts of its brain and spinal column.
It’s all very Frankenstein-ish — and also very obvious why scientists around the world are breeding populations of axolotls just to cut off their little legs or poke needles in their brains or do whatever other ungodly, mad-scientist things they can think of to poke and prod the axolotl’s miraculous ability (under sedation, of course … they say).
And it really is a miracle when you think about it. Imagine losing a finger or a breast or an eye or having a damaged heart, lung, liver or brain— and having the ability to regrow that very part of your own body. No scar tissue, no transplant rejection. Just life itself restored.
If that secret power can be tapped, millions of human lives can theoretically be saved or at least changed for the better.
Which is why scientists keep on with their Dr. Frankenstein experiments on the weird little axolotl.
And they will keep on keeping on until someone somewhere cracks the genetic code that makes this miracle happen.
I’m just not sure the world will be a better place then.
You carry a heavy burden, axolotl. Go in peace.