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Tenochtitlan on Lake Texcoco

Modern Mexico City, super metropolis of nine million people, was once a series of lakes.  The Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan, was located there on a network of artificial islands.  In those lakes, in countless numbers, swam the axolotl, Ambystoma mexicanum, a wholly aquatic salamander.   As mentioned in the previous post, according to Aztec mythology, the underworld god Xolotl transformed himself into an axolotl to escape being murdered.  In a wide world filled with strange animals, axolotls are particularly strange: they certainly have a whiff of the underworld as well as a hint of the divine.


Axolotls are neotenic.  Unlike most other amphibians, they never transform into a terrestrial organism but maintain gills and tail fins for their entire lives.  Although it seems like the axolotl should be stunted by its failure to metamorphosize, it actually grows much larger and lives much longer than the tiger salamander (a non-neotenic salamander which it is closely related to).  Adult axolotls range from nine to twelve inches and can live for up to twenty five years (although a lifespan of ten to fifteen years is more normal).  They are freshwater carnivores, hunting worms, minnows, and aquatic insects via smell.

Xolotl was the god of misfortune and bad luck is currently dogging the wild axolotl.  The lakes of the Mexican basin have been one of the most populated areas of the western hemisphere since the fourteenth century.  Axolotl tacos were a favorite meal of the inhabitants for centuries and the creature was overfished up until the twentieth century…when the lakes were drained to prevent flooding.  Now the lakes largely exist in huge pipes deep below the city and as a series of polluted channels and small reservoirs.  Not only are these remaining canals choked with pollution, but super competitive non-native fish have been introduced, most prominently the African tilapia and the Asian carp.

Axolotls are nearly extinct in the wild, and it is uncertain whether they will survive there much longer.  The animals have, however found a dark refuge which ensures their continuing existence.  Because of their neoteny, axolotls have extraordinary abilities to heal themselves.  Not only can they completely regrow lost arms and legs back to full size and function, they can also regenerate damaged vital organs–including portions of their brains.  Axolotls do not heal by scarring, but seem to use some more fundamental ability to regenerate.  Of course these remarkable abilities can not help axolotls when they are cooked into a burrito or devoured whole by a carp, but their unusual healing has brought them to the attention of biologists and medical scientists (as has their longevity in comparison with similar salamanders).

Axolotls are available in assorted colors.

Axolotls have joined fruit flies, mice, zebrafish, and rhesus monkeys as a model animal for the laboratory.  The salamanders may individually be vivisected, dissected, and subjected to crazy organ transplants or chemical manipulations, but overall they have found an ecosystem to thrive in. Their population numbers have been growing and axolotls will not be extinct until life science is.   Indeed if the field of regenerative medicine begins to flourish, all of humankind might have reason to revere the axolotl far more than the Aztecs esteemed Xolotl.



Xolotl was a monstrous and deformed Aztec deity associated with sickness, misfortune, lightning, and dogs (which were useful but taboo animals to the Aztecs).  He was the twin of the glorious feathered serpent, Quetzalcoatl, one of the most important and revered of Aztec deities.  Unfortunately twins were also taboo to Mesoamericans and Xolotl’s place in the pantheon in no way matches his brother’s.  Filthy and skeletal, with backwards feet, floppy ears, and a cowering, cringing demeanor, Xolotl was constantly getting into trouble.  Scarred by his own lightning, beset by his own sicknesses, his task was to help drag the sun through the underworld at night.

In one critical story, Xolotl traveled to the depths of Mictlan, the Aztec underworld, to unearth the horrible rotting bones of an extinct race of beings.  He tricked Mictlantecuhtli, goddess of Mictlan, into allowing him to drag a filthy carcass up to the world of light where his brother and the radiant gods of heaven sprinkled it with their blood.  Thus was humankind born–from the blood of the sky gods and the bones of the dead.

What happened to luckless Xolotl?  One legend tells that he suffered setbacks in the tempestuous political affairs of the gods (recall, he was the deity of misfortune).  Fearing that he was about to be banished or killed, he transformed himself into an axolotl, the indigenous salamander of the Mexican basin.  The axolotl lacks the ability to transform into a land animal which other salamanders have.  Almost all of the population is perennibranchiate, trapped with gills and fins forever in the polluted shrinking waterways around Mexico city.


Ye Olde Ferrebeekeeper Archives

June 2023