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Mexico City's 'walking fish'

Frankie was missing half his face. A fungal infection had come over the little axolotl, a native amphibian of the waterways of Mexico City.


But Frankie, along with other axolotls, have a special talent. Veterinarian and axolotl researcher Erika Servín Zamora, who was also Frankie’s caregiver, said she was astounded to see the animal’s remarkable regeneration abilities that she’d read about in her studies. Within two months, Frankie had grown a new, fully functional eye, and life was back to normal in his tank at the city’s Chapultepec Zoo.

弗兰基和其它蝾螈一样,有一种特殊的才能。查普尔特佩克动物园(Chapultepec Zoo)兽医兼蝾螈研究人员赞莫拉(Erika Servin Zamora)是弗兰基的照顾者,她在研究中发现这种动物非凡的再生能力,感到非常震惊。不到两个月,弗兰基就长出了一只功能齐全的新眼睛,它在动物园的生活也恢复了正常。

Frankie might not have been so lucky in his native habitat, just about 30km south of the zoo. The axolotl, though gaining traction as a symbol of Mexico City, and specifically of the southern borough of Xochimilco, a Unesco World Heritage site, is nearly extinct in the wild due to increases in invasive fish species and water pollution in the city’s troubled canals. Making things worse, Frankie is an albino axolotl, which means he’s light pink with frilly, pink gills coming off his head – he’d be easy prey for Xochimilco’s invasive tilapia in the dark, murky waters.

弗兰基的老家在动物园以南30公里处,那里的蝾螈可能就没那么幸运了。蝾螈是墨西哥城的象征,特别是联合国教科文组织世界遗产(Unesco World Heritage)所在地科琴米洛克(Xochimilco)的象征,也越来越受到人们的关注,但由于外来入侵的鱼类的增加和该市运河的水污染,野生蝾螈几乎已经灭绝。更糟糕的是,弗兰基是一只白化的蝾螈,这意味着它是淡粉色的,有褶边,粉红色的鳃从头上耷拉下来,因此它很容易成为入侵科琴米洛克黑暗水域的罗非鱼的猎物。

Known locally as “water monsters”, axolotls have a love-them-or-leave-them appearance. For some, these 20cm-long, soft-skinned, water dwellers are considered adorable, with the appearance of a perpetual smile. For others, these four-toed amphibians are just plain odd.


Despite their somewhat polarising looks, they are of particular interest to scientists hoping that axolotls like Frankie just might teach us humans the regeneration trick someday.


“Scientists are looking to benefit from the regenerative properties of axolotls by applying them to people who are injured in accidents, wars or suffering illness – people who lose limbs,” Servín Zamora said. “Others are looking for ways that axolotl regeneration can benefit human organs, such as by healing the heart or the liver.”


Axolotls are also helping Servín Zamora and other scientists understand the apparent resistance to cancer that all amphibians seem to have. “In 15 years, I have not seen any cases of malignant tumours in axolotls, which is interesting,” she said. “We suspect that their ability to regenerate cells and body parts helps them in that respect.”


And that's not all. Axolotls have been used traditionally throughout Mexico as a remedy for conditions associated with things like pregnancy, frailty and respiratory illness. A group of nuns in Patzcuaro, Mexico, legally breeds one axolotl species, ambystoma dumerilii, and uses the animals as an ingredient in cough syrup, though traditionally they were consumed as part of a broth.

这还不是全部。传统上,墨西哥各地都使用蝾螈来治疗产妇、体弱或是呼吸系统疾病。在墨西哥的帕茨夸罗(Patzcuaro),一群修女合法地培育了一个蝾螈品种(名叫ambystoma dumerilii),并把它们作为止咳糖浆的成分,传统上它们也是会被炖汤食用。

Perpetual teenagers – and representations of the divine


Frankie is an ambystoma mexicanum, one of the 17 species of axolotl in Mexico. Found primarily in the states of Mexico, Puebla and Michoacán, many are critically endangered. Some species transform themselves into earth-walking salamanders by losing their tadpole-like tails and gills from their heads. However, this too depends on the environment. Frankie, for instance, living in captivity and therefore void of predators, will stay an eternal teenager. Never transforming into salamanders, axolotls like him will keep the tail they developed as a larva and live completely underwater.


“Basically, they decide whether they will complete the metamorphosis, based on environmental stressors,” Servín Zamora said. “If they decide it would be better to live out of water, they will undergo the transformation into salamanders, but that can be a stressful undertaking in itself as they stop eating completely for that period. The current theory is that, for evolutionary reasons, the ambystoma mexicanum would remain in a juvenile state [somewhere between a tadpole and a salamander] because there was so much food in the water [such as charales, a small freshwater fish] and they had few predators, so there was little reason to emerge.”

“基本上,它们会根据环境压力来决定是否完成蜕变,”赞莫拉说:“如果它们决定离开水域,更好地生活,就将经历变成蝾螈的过程。但这本身就是一项艰苦的工作,因为在这段时间里它们会完全停止进食。当前的理论是,由于进化的原因,墨西哥钝口螈(ambystoma mexicanum)会仍处于幼年状态,介于蝌蚪和蝾螈的形态之间。因为有这么多的食物在水中(如藻类和小型淡水虾),又几乎没有天敌,所以几乎没有理由出现蜕变。”

Because of this tendency to change form, axolotls have a profound presence in Aztec (or Mexica) cosmogony. They were often recognised as a representation of Xolotl, god of the underworld and the malefic twin of the feathered serpent god Quetzacoatl, often represented as the sun.


When various gods were asked to make a sacrifice in order to create the world, Xolotl fled into the water. For his cowardice and reluctance to help, he was damned to live forever in the water and to suffer from eternal youth. For the Aztecs, death was transcendence, and to not complete that cycle meant being banned from reaching a higher realm.


A tourist attraction


Despite the axolotl’s endangered status, images of Frankie and his friends are plastered all over Mexico City, covering walls as street art and sold as plush toys in gift shops. An image of the ambystoma mexicanum axolotl will grace the 50-peso bill to be released in 2022. And Mexico City’s updated tour buses feature an image of an albino axolotl emblazoned on its double-decker sides.


Years ago, if you wanted to find an axolotl, all you had to do was look for a canal. Mexico City was built on the bed of what was once a massive lake, which the Aztecs used to create canals – as well as chinampas, floating islands made out of trees and mud that were used to grow food – for navigational and transportation purposes. Though the lake and much of the canal system have been drained over the years to make way for a growing population, more than 183km of canals remain in the Xochimilco borough, and 165 hectares of land and water are located in the protected area of the Xochimilco Ecological Park.


But rather than axolotls, visitors today are likely to see numerous migratory bird species and revellers on boats in the canals. The area has become heavily touristed and is best known as a place to go for a ride in colourful wooden boats called trajineras, where smaller boats come over full of mariachis, or to sell beer and refreshments.


Environmental threats


As trajineras are motorless boats, they are not thought to negatively impact the axolotls. However, the chinampas are not connected to the city’s sewage system, so waste often winds up in the canals. Other threats to the amphibians include the quick growth of non-native, ornamental aquatic plants, and pollution from industrial fertilisers, as well as invasive species such as carp and tilapia, which were introduced by the government in the 1970s to supply food to the formerly rural area. The latter idea was well-intentioned, Servín Zamora said, but not well thought out, as the carp and tilapia feast on young axolotls.


“The problems that Xochimilco faces are not just environmental, but social as well,” Servín Zamora said. “People do not have enough income from their chinampas or ecotourism, so they tend to build their homes there [on their chinampa land, which is an affordable option as they already own the property] and for that reason urbanization has grown so much in those areas. Unfortunately, all the drainage from those homes goes directly into the canals, and that has caused tremendous pollution.”


In 2017, the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) did a study monitoring the canals. While the results are still under review, it was shown that the water pollution is very serious in Xochimilco’s rapidly growing urban zones. Servín Zamora said there is hope of recuperating spaces still devoted to agriculture and therefore less likely to be tainted by pollution caused by overpopulation. “If we work hard with education, research and working directly in the area, we can rescue it, even if it’s just one part.” Still, the study found just one axolotl living in the wild in Xochimilco.

2017年,墨西哥国立自治大学(National Autonomous University of Mexico)对运河进行了监测研究。结果显示,在科琴米洛克快速发展的城市地区,水污染非常严重。赞莫拉说,恢复的土地仍有希望用于农业生产,因此不太可能受到人口过剩造成的污染。"如果我们在教育、研究和直接保育方面努力工作,我们就可以拯救小蝾螈,尽管它只是自然环境的一部分。尽管如此,研究发现只有一只野生蝾螈生活在科琴米洛克。

Saving the axolotl


Today, most axolotls live in captivity. Yanin Carbajal is the co-founder of Casa del Axolotl, a museum and aquarium dedicated to educating the public on axolotls, located in the town of Chignahuapan in Puebla. Her project started years ago with breeding tanks at her family’s ranch in the foothills of the Sierra Madre Oriental mountains. The museum space located in town opened last year, featuring 15 to 20 axolotls of four different species.

如今,大多数蝾螈都是养殖的。卡巴加尔(Yanin Carbajal)是“蝾螈之家”(Casa del Axolotl)的联合创始人,这是一家致力于向公众普及蝾螈知识的水族博物馆,位于普埃布拉的齐纳瓦潘镇(Chignahuapan)。她的项目开始于几年前,开始时只是在她家位于马德雷山脉(Sierra Madre Oriental)山麓牧场的饲养箱内养殖。去年镇上的博物馆开放,展出了四个不同种类的15到20只蝾螈。

Carbajal said she was motivated to care for axolotls because of their strong link to Mexico’s pre-Columbian history, their important implications for human health, and the goal to preserve the species and improve their habitats. However, she cautions potential pet owners that raising axolotls is no simple feat. While keeping them as pets around the world is legal, in Mexico it’s only legal to obtain them from a nursery accredited by the secretary of environment.


“Ignorance is a big problem, with people taking them from the wild and keeping them as pets in some cases or selling them,” Carbajal said. “If people are able to breed them, well that is a positive. But if not, then that is not helping the species. As they live in still water lakes and lagoons, the temperatures tend not to fluctuate as quickly as they can in captivity [making captivity a serious undertaking].”


Mexico City has a few places where captive axolotls can be seen today, including Chapultepec Zoo, Zoológico Los Coyotes and the headquarters of tour operators Axolotitlán and Umbral Axochiatl, both in Xochimilco.

今天,墨西哥城有几个地方可以看到人工饲养的蝾螈,包括查普尔特佩克动物园(Chapultepec Zoo)、罗斯克亚台斯动物园(Zoologico Los Coyotes),以及旅游运营商阿科罗提泰兰(Axolotitlan)和巫布拉阿琴起亚特(Umbral Axochiatl)。它们的总部都在科琴米洛克。

Pamela Valencia is the founder of Axolotitlán, a Mexico City-based operator that aims to educate locals and travellers on Xochimilco’s delicate ecosystem and the need to support axolotls, through tours with a cooperative of local chinamperos (chinampa farmers) in the ecological park.

瓦伦西亚(Pamela Valencia)是总部位于墨西哥城的阿科罗提泰兰公司的创始人,该公司旨在与当地的奇昂帕农场主合作经营生态公园旅游项目,向当地人和旅行者介绍科琴米洛克脆弱的生态系统,以及保育蝾螈的必要性。

“The axolotl is a theme in Mexico that has to do with politics, society, the use of resources, environmental and systemized education,” Valencia said on a warm afternoon at her axolotl refuge, where visitors can come to learn about the axolotls. “It’s a topic that touches on all the rubrics of society in one way or another. We believe that the axolotl is a secret to save our city, our country and probably the world. It’s an incredibly important animal that can inspire people to stop doing things [such as polluting] that we’ve been doing for a long time as a society, and to do better in many ways.”


Dionisio Eslava, president of Umbral Axochiatl, which works with Axolotitlán to organise tours in his native Xochimilco so that visitors can better understand the natural side of Xochimilco, said that closing the gap geographically, culturally and socioeconomically between central Mexico City folk and the farmers in the south is one way to help clean up the zone, and thus help the axolotls return to the area.

巫布拉阿琴起亚特的总裁艾斯拉瓦(Dionisio Eslava),在家乡科琴米洛克与阿科罗提泰兰公司一起组织旅游项目,让游客们可以更好地理解当地的自然生态。他认为,弥合墨西哥中部城市居民和南方农民之间在地理、文化和社会经济方面的差距,是清洁该地区的一个方法,然后墨西哥蝾螈就有望回家。

“Ecosystems are a type of security, not only for food but also water, oxygen and as an ally for facing climate change,” he said. “The big cities should support our ecosystems by visiting us and accompanying us in this treasure that is a great inheritance of all of humanity.”


Not only can this small and often overlooked animal guide us in protecting the planet, but it potentially holds the key to unlocking certain scientific mysteries.


Frankie lived to be eight years old – though captive axolotls can live 12 years or more – dying of natural causes at Chapultepec Zoo in 2010. Servín Zamora holds a special place for him in her heart because he was one of the first axolotls she ever worked with and she learned quite a lot from him – hopefully, the rest of the world will, too.

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