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Axolotl (Ambystoma mexicanum)

The name axolotl is thought to have originated from the Aztecs, derived from two words: atl, meaning water, and xolotl meaning monster. Axolotls do not develop adult characteristics but retain their gills, fins and other larval characteristics throughout their life. They live permanently in water, in the wetlands and canals associated with Lake Xochimilco and Lake Chalco, adjacent to Mexico City. Once eaten as a delicacy in Mexico City, they are now a protected species in Mexico and Critically Endangered in the wild. The species is now listed as Critically Endangered in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species because its area of occupancy is less than 10 km sq., its distribution is severely fragmented, there is a continuing decline in the extent and quality of its habitat and a sustained decline in the number of mature individuals.

Order: Caudata Family: Ambystomatidae The family Ambystomatidae or the mole salamanders is included within the four earliest or most primitive family lineages of the order Caudata (the salamanders), diverging from all other salamanders in the Early Cretaceous period over 140 million years ago. The axolotl exhibits some highly unusual and distinct features, indicative of its evolutionary distinctiveness, including its rare neotenous life history, whereby the species never develops into an adult but instead retains its juvenile characteristics throughout life, essentially achieving reproductive maturity whilst still in its undeveloped larval form. This would be akin to a tadpole being able to breed without ever turning into a frog. Young axolotls feed on algae, but as adults their diet predominantly consists of aquatic insects. During reproduction in axolotls, the male releases sperm packets which are taken up by the female for internal fertilisation. Fertilised eggs are attached by the female to structures such as plants and hatching generally occurs after 2-3 weeks. In the wild, axolotls can live for ten to 12 years. The major predators of the axolotl are predatory birds such as herons. Axolotls famously have a fast regeneration rate which can allow them to regrow limbs and organs. In addition to respiring via their external fearthery gills, axolotls are able to breathe through their skin and also possess lungs

The axolotl is native to the ancient system of water channels and lakes in Mexico City. This species requires deep-water lakes and water bodies (including both natural and artificial canals) with abundant aquatic vegetation. The axolotl depends upon vegetation and other suitable structures for the attachment of their eggs, following fertilisation. Lake Xochimilco is known for its f loating gardens, or chinampas. Axolotls may be found in these channels, as well as remaining lake areas.

An accurate population estimate is currently unavailable for the species, although the surviving wild population of axolotls is known to be very small despite a large captive population. Although populations are difficult to assess, recent surveys covering almost all of its known distribution range have usually captured less than 100 individuals, Wild-caught animals are still found in local markets, indicating that the local fishermen still know where to find them. There has not been a density study of the Chalco population, but evidence suggests that this population is small and, furthermore, Chalco is a highly unstable system which runs the risk of disappearing in the near future.

Axolotl populations are suffering as a result of land drainage and the growth of Mexico City. Various efforts at flood control and sewage disposal starting in the seventeenth century have led to serious damage to the Xochimilco and Chalco lake complex. The digging of wells for the burgeoning population of Mexico City has also caused drying of the valley in which the lakes are located. The largest of these lakes, Texcoco, has been greatly diminished in size, while Lake Chalco has all but disappeared. Xochimilco has likewise suffered a decline in size and water quality. The major threat to the survival of the axolotl is therefore the draining, pollution and general degradation of the canal system and lakes in Xochimilco and Chalco, as a result of urbanization. The species is under pressure from traditional harvesting for consumption by local people and axolotls are also captured for medicinal purposes. The harvesting is targeted at animals that are less than one year old, and therefore generally before the individuals have had the opportunity to breed since axolotls reach sexual maturity at approximately one and a half years of age. Formerly, axolotls have also been captured for the international pet trade, although it is thought that no axolotls commercially available today are wild caught since doing so is strictly forbidden. The majority of axolotls currently available on the international market probably originated from captive or laboratory populations. Introduced predatory fish (such as tilapia and carp) have also increased to high abundances a recent study collected 600kg of tilapia in one small channel using a 100m net.

Conservation action to protect axolotl populations in the wild is focusing on raising the profile of Lake Xochimilco through conservation education and a nature tourism initiative, coupled with work on habitat restoration and bioremediation. A species action plan is in draft. This species is protected under the category Pr (Special Protection) by the Government of Mexico and is in the process of being amended to a higher risk category. The axolotl is currently on Appendix II of CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora), restricting its international trade to protect this species from over-harvesting in the wild, where it has been listed since 1975. However, it is currently under the process of "Periodic Review of Species included in CITES Appendices". A Darwin project was recently completed focusing on the conservation of the axolotl, led by the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology. This was designed to assist Mexico in the development of a sustainable development programme to conserve the axolotl and other endemic fauna and flora of Xochimilco through the promotion of nature tourism. Protection of the axolotls habitat in the Xochimilco and Chalco canals and wetlands is an urgent priority in order to prevent this species from becoming extinct in the wild. In addition to conserving native habitat for this species, the IUCN Technical Guidelines for the Management of Ex situ Populations, part of the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, recommend that all Critically Endangered species should have an ex situ population managed to guard against the extinction of the species. An ex situ population is ideally a breeding colony of a species maintained outside its natural habitat, giving rise to individuals from that species that are sheltered from problems associated with their situation in the wild. This can be located within the species range or in a foreign country that has the facilities to support a captive breeding programme for the species. There are already several captive colonies around the world for the axolotl, since this species is used in physiological and biomedical research, as well as in the pet trade, but the reintroduction of captive-bred axolotls is not recommended until threats can be neutralised and disease and genetic risks to wild populations assessed. Furthermore, captive bred populations lose affinity for their wild habitat with each successive generation away from their wild descendents. Most captive bred populations of axolotls bear little resemblance to their wild ancestors, especially the leucistic (or albino) varieties. It is hopeful that axolotls are known to readily breed in captivity, rendering a captive breeding programme for conservation purposes a viable option, but any such programme should ideally utilise wild caught individuals to give resulting progeny the best chance of survival in the wild.