In Aztec creation stories, during the dawning of the Fifth Sun, the era in which humans were created and in which we live, the sun was created by the gods, but wouldn’t ှmove across the sky. It needed nourishment, and that meant sacrifice. The gods themselves were the first to be sacrificed to the Sun ,setting the example the Aztecs would later follow by sacrificing other humans. However the god Xolotl didn’t want to be sacrificed. He changed himself into other forms to evade detection. After changing forms several times, Xolotl finally found Lake Xochimilco and transformed into an axolotl and jumped into the water. Quetzalcoatl, his brother, later found him and spared his life but sentenced him to live his life forever as a water monster.
Axolotls are a type of salamander found in Lake Xochimilco underlying Mexico City. Beyond the spiritual ties they have to the Aztecs, axolotls are unlike any other salamander. They live permanently in the water and maintain their juvenile form throughout their lives, never maturing to their adult body. And on top of this, the axolotl can regenerate almost any part of its body, from missing limbs, tail, organs, parts of its eyes and even parts of its brain.
Scientists think the axolotls’ forever young condition called neoteny evolved because of their stable habitat. For salamanders that grow in water that dry up, moving to land is essential. However the lakes at which the axolotls live are unchanging all year round and don’t have many predators. The environment around the lakes where axolotls live are deserts. For axolotls these lakes are the only suitable habitats for them. Salamanders usually metamorphose to take advantage of both land and water but only when the land is somewhat damp.
All animals have some form of regenerative ability. In invertebrates like crabs and octopuses they can even regenerate whole limbs. But in vertebrates like humans and other mammals, regeneration is limited to regrowing skin or scar tissue over a wound. Except for our liver, we can’t regrow our organs. In fact almost no vertebrate can regenerate much more than we can, except for the axolotl and other salamanders.
As babies, axolotls snack on each other. However this is not much of a big problem because of their regenerative abilities. When an axolotl loses a limb, a blood clot stops the bleeding at the cut and skin covers the amputation. This stage is similar to the way we would heal. Then over the next few days, the progenitor cells, which can develop into various bodily tissues, form a mass at the site of injury. Slowly over a few weeks a new limb is formed which is identical to the one that was lost. Because of this ability, axolotls are one of science’s most studied animals. Scientists hope that one day we can also apply this ability to humans.
Today, axolotls are in risk of extinction. Today the entire population of axolotls are found only in one place Lake Xochimilco where it is threatened by pollution and invasive fishes. People are working to regenerate the ecosystem and strengthen their farming tradition. If this gets more popular, farmers can yield more crops and support the local community along with the axolotls.
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