Mexico City’s endangered axolotl has found fame—is that enough to save it?

A unique cast of people is racing to save the quirky salamander, but experts warn that what’s really needed is habitat restoration.

photographs by Luis Antonio Rojas
Published 17 Jan 2022, 11:50 GMT
Axolotl lead
The image of an axolotl is projected on a structure simulating a pyramid for a play in Xochimilco, Mexico City, on November 8, 2019.
Photograph by Luis Antonio Rojas

In Mexico City’s trendy Roma neighbourhood, Monstruo de Agua’s patio hums with young people chatting over smoked avocado ceviche, tempura mushrooms, and craft beers. Each beer at the microbrewery bears a label with an image of the quirky axolotl, complete with its crown of feather-like gills.

The brewery chose the critically endangered salamander as its mascot in the hopes of boosting awareness among the Mexican public, says founder Matías Vera-Cruz Dutrenit. “If our product is good, it can act as a good ambassador to the animal,” he says.

Named after the Aztec god of fire and lightning, Xolotl, the axolotl has been an important symbol of Mexican culture for centuries. Monstruo del Agua means “water monster,” which is the Spanish translation of the word axolotl from Nahuatl, the language of the ancient Aztecs.

A farmer rows besides a chinampa—an artificial island used for farming—on a canal in Xochimilco, Mexico City, in December 2019.
Photograph by Luis Antonio Rojas

Once widespread throughout the high-altitude lakes surrounding Mexico City, these foot-long amphibians are now limited to only a few inland canals near Lake Xochimilco, where only between 50 and a thousand survive. This precariously small population faces a barrage of threats: water pollution; predation by invasive carp and tilapia; and most significantly, habitat loss.

As the salamander has declined over the past decade, public awareness about the axolotl has blossomed. Axolotls are now characters in the online game Minecraft and on the global game platform Roblox. The new 50 peso, released in late 2021, features the axolotl as its cover model

Axolotls—normally brown or grey in the wild—have also become extremely popular as pets, which are usually white with pink highlights, a genetic mutation caused by captive breeding. (Read how Mexican nuns are working to help axolotls.)

Despite the widespread recognition, Luis Zambrano, an axolotl expert at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, is skeptical about whether the new bill or the axolotl’s growing fame will translate into meaningful change. 

“We have millions of [captive] axolotls around the world,” Zambrano says, but “we need the habitat”—a daunting task in a sprawling metropolis of 22 million, he says.

There’s “not a silver bullet for the conservation of this species.”

Brewing awareness for the axolotl

Monstruo de Agua serves about 300 direct vendors, and in 2020, started exporting to stores in the United States.

A farmer completes a seed bed made from mud in Xochimilco in February 2021. The chinampa is an ancient technique in which farmers create artificial islands of fertile land among water bodies.
Photograph by Luis Antonio Rojas
Carlos Sumano, of the Laboratory of Ecological Restoration at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, photographs water from a Xochimilco canal to analyze its quality in December 2020.
Photograph by Luis Antonio Rojas

Using the axolotl imagery on his company’s label comes with a moral obligation, says Dutrenit, who was born in Mexico City. For one, the company provides press kits to its beer vendors with basic information about axolotls and how to protect them.

As he samples some hummus from his menu one December afternoon, Dutrenit talks passionately about the parallels between axolotls and his company’s values: Mexican heritage, regeneration, and sustainability. 

A three-month-old axolotl swims inside a tank at the National Autonomous University of Mexico's Laboratory of Ecological Restoration in April 2021. Axolotls are easy to grow in captivity and have become popular pets worldwide.
Photograph by Luis Antonio Rojas
A 10-day-old axolotl larva swims in a plastic bucket at the ecology lab. Axolotls are unusual in that they maintain their larval appearance into adulthood.
Photograph by Luis Antonio Rojas

The salamander can regrow lost or damaged limbs, hearts, spinal cords, and even parts of their brains. Likewise, Dutrenit says, his company uses regenerative farming practices for its native ingredients, such as agave and amaranth. This includes using polyculture—or growing more than one crop at a time, a practice that improves soil quality.

Lastly, the company is committed to sustainability. This includes using rainwater in beer production and transporting goods by bicycle, all meant to lessen the human impact on Mexico City’s environment, including the axolotl’s Xochimilco habitat.

Habitat restoration: crucial but challenging 

In 1993, the Mexican government took action to protect axolotl habitat by designating the 530-acre Xochimilco Ecological Park and Plant Market. But progress has been slow: Pollution from wastewater treatment plants and urbanisation still threaten much of the area, Zambrano says.

Juvenile axolotls rest in a fish tank at an axolotarium in Xochimilco in March 2021.
Photograph by Luis Antonio Rojas

That’s why Zambrano and his colleagues developed a Plan B for axolotls, establishing temporary ponds for captive salamanders. In a recent experiment, 11 pairs of lab-bred axolotls were released, one at a time, into three ponds on the university campus. The results were encouraging: Seven of the 11 pairs hatched eggs, and the surviving juveniles were healthy. 

Construction of a six-lane bridge destroyed part of the Xochimilco wetland, as seen in June 2021. Such habitat loss remains the main threat to axolotls.
Photograph by Luis Antonio Rojas
An abandoned chinampa is overwhelmed by weeds in Xochimilco in December 2020. The chinampa tradition has declined over the decades, in part due to lack of support for farmers.
Photograph by Luis Antonio Rojas

So far, these captive axolotls serve as an insurance population: Zambrano said scientists won’t release them into Xochimilco unless the wild population completely disappears. 

Traditional farming saves salamanders

Xochimilco native and community organiser Dionisio Eslava Sandoval is taking matters into his own hands by restoring traditional pre-Hispanic chinampas, artificial agricultural islands surrounded by narrow canals that filter out pollution.

Chinampas provide perfect habitat for axolotls, but 95 percent of them are unproductive, either overgrown or abandoned as traditional farming has ebbed.

Most outsiders know Xochimilco for its colourfully painted party boats called trajineras, which take tourists on cruises through the area’s canal system. But on this clear morning, our personal trajinera captain has a different mission. He steers his boat past a Xochimilco sign featuring a bright pink smiling axolotl and stops at Sandoval’s newly restored chinampa.

A female axolotl swims inside a water tank at the National Autonomous University's Laboratory of Ecological Restoration in April 2021.
Photograph by Luis Antonio Rojas

As Sandoval disembarks, he recalls how far his chinampa has come; once a “tremendous garbage dump,” it’s now a thriving farm of about 2,000 square feet, producing carrots, garlic, broccoli, and other crops grown with native seeds and organic farming methods.

Sandoval’s chinampa is also the new home to 11 axolotls, which Sandoval—with a government permit—relocated from the main canal system into interconnected ditches, where two screen-like filters keep out heavy metals and other pollutants, as well as carp and tilapia. Landowners and farmers in similar ditches nearby have released at least 240 more axolotls using this method.

Though he does not work directly with Sandoval, Zambrano and his team manage the Chinampa Refuge Project, which created 20 similar axolotl refuges with the help of 28 local chinampa farmers, also by relocating animals from the main canals.

Sandoval hopes even more people will follow suit. “The idea is that this grows,” he said. “How do we educate people? With an example.”

Luis Antonio Rojas is a National Geographic Explorer and a documentary photographer based in Mexico City. Follow him on Instagram.

The National Geographic Society, committed to illuminating and protecting the wonder of our world, has funded Rojas' work. Learn more about the Society’s support of Explorers.

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