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Mexico City and its Sacred Salamanders

Important symbols of both Mexican culture and ecosystem health, axolotls are on the brink of extinction in the wild, but a return to ancient practices offers hope for their future.

Iconic salamanders that live exclusively in Mexico City’s Xochimilco lake complex, axolotls (Ambystoma mexicanum) are remarkable for a number of reasons. While most salamanders spend part of their adulthood on land, axolotls live permanently underwater and retain their larval features—including their feathery external gills—throughout their lives. There, they grow to lengths of up to 30 centimeters (12 inches), preying on aquatic insects, worms, tadpoles, crustaceans, and small fish. Thanks to their unique physiology and ability to regrow severed limbs, axolotls have been treasured by both the ancient Aztecs, who considered them to be descendants of an important deity, and modern scientists, who have used them as lab models to study everything from tissue regeneration to cancer. However, the species is now critically endangered in the wild, suffering from the triple threat of habitat destruction, pollution, and the introduction of non-native predatory fish. It is also a canary in the coal mine for an ecosystem in extreme distress. In this short film, join Luis Zambrano and Cristina Barros from the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) to see how some of Mexico City’s biologists, anthropologists, and traditional farmers are responding to this crisis, working to restore the habitat that is necessary not just for axolotls to survive in the wild, but also for the region’s human populations to thrive.


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