If you’ve ever looked at the word axolotl and wondered what it denotes and how to say it, you’re not alone. Pronounced ax–uh-lot-ul, this amphibian looks like a curious mix of salamander and fish. With legs, gills, and a slithery body, they seem to have trouble knowing exactly what they are. Unfortunately, they are far less numerous in the wild than they once were. So just how many axolotls are in the world? Find out this and more as we uncover the strange, exotic lives of these aquatic creatures.
What is an Axolotl?
Axolotls are the rarest type of aquatic salamander in the world. Their taxonomic name is Ambystoma mexicanum. They are also known as Mexican walking fish because they live almost entirely in the water. Despite this, they are not actually fish.
Axolotls derive their name from the Aztec deity Xolotl, the god of fire and lightning. This god is said to have transformed into an axolotl to escape death. The name “axolotl” means “water monster.”
Their baby faces and delightful range of colours make axolotls popular worldwide. In the wild, they are typically brown with gold specks, though they can manifest a number of colours. Albinos have gold skin and eyes. Leucistic axolotls are pale pink or white with black eyes while xanthic axolotls are gray. Melanoids are completely black. Besides this, exotic pet breeders often experiment to develop new colours. This has resulted in a number of different varieties like the golden albino or piebald morphs.
The average size of an axolotl is 9 inches in length, though they can grow up to 18 inches long. They are relatively light, weighing in at a maximum of 10.5 ounces.
How Many Axolotls Are in the World?
The International Union for Conservation of Nature estimates that there are between 50 and 1,000 axolotls left in the wild. The number can’t be known more precisely as axolotls are extremely shy of humans. Even experienced conservationists have a difficult time finding them in the wild.
However, the total number of axolotls in captivity is much higher, as high as 1 million by some estimates. They are a favoured exotic pet in many parts of the world as well as ideal lab subjects. In some places, people even eat them as a delicacy.
Where Do Axolotls Live?
Axolotls have only one natural habitat left: Lake Xochimilco in the Valley of Mexico. The nearby Lake Chalco was once a home for these creatures, but the government drained it due to flooding concerns. This forced its wildlife to find new habitats.
Axolotls are a unique type of salamander in that they live their whole lives in the water. They are neotenic, which means that they do not lose their larval features when they mature. Other salamanders become terrestrial when they get older. However, axolotls retain their gills, which allows them to breathe and live underwater. In fact, if kept out of the water too long, an axolotl will die. Neoteny accounts for the cute baby face associated with this species.
Lake Xochimilco is well-suited to axolotls because of its temperature. It remains between 60-64 degrees Fahrenheit, which is the ideal temperature for this species. They like to crawl and swim at the bottom of the lake where hiding places are abundant.
Axolotl Diet and Predators
Axolotls are carnivorous predators. They require a high-protein diet to thrive. In the wild, they eat aquatic insects, insect larvae, worms, crustaceans, mollusks, small fish, and some amphibians. Being relatively small in size, they rely on smaller prey for sustenance. In captivity, they can be fed bloodworms, earthworms, shrimp, beef, insects, pelleted food, and feeder fish.
Axolotls do not have an overabundance of predators. However, carp or tilapia may attack them, as well as storks or herons. Humans also eat axolotls on occasion. This was a common practice among the Mexican people when axolotls were more numerous. They are difficult to find and catch in their native habitat today, which has put an end to this practice. In Japan, on the other hand, captive axolotls are so plentiful that restaurants often serve them as a delicacy. They are supposedly crunchy and taste fishy.
Axolotl Reproduction and Lifespan
It takes 18-24 months for axolotls to reach sexual maturity. Being neotenic, they retain their larval characteristics even when they reach this stage. A courtship dance results in the female finding sperm capsules left by the male. She inserts these, which result in fertilization.
A female can lay between 100 to 1,000 eggs at once, usually on plant matter. The eggs hatch after about 14 days. Occasionally, axolotls will eat their own eggs or offspring.
Axolotls can live well over 20 years in captivity. In the wild, they usually average between 10-15 years.
Do Axolotls Make Good Pets?
Axolotls are popular pets for their unique range of colours and adorable faces. However, they are also somewhat fragile, requiring gentle handling and carefully monitored conditions. It is vital that the temperature of the aquarium water be kept between 60-64 degrees Fahrenheit. In addition to regulating their body temperature, it also prevents the excessive growth of algae.
Although some axolotls are sold for as little as $40-$50, they require regular upkeep and costly vet visits. They can live over 20 years in captivity, so be prepared for a long-term commitment. A high-protein diet will help keep your pet healthy.
Besides being kept as pets, many axolotls live in labs as specimens for scientific research. Their regenerative abilities are the subject of many studies in the hopes that humans will one day benefit. Their remarkable resistance to cancer – about 1,000 times that of the average mammal – is also of keen interest to scientists.
Some axolotls are also zoo residents, allowing people to see them without the cost and care involved with keeping a pet.
Are Axolotls Endangered?
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists axolotls as Critically Endangered. With a maximum of 1,000 left in the wild, they are in serious danger of going extinct outside of captivity.
What has caused this alarming reduction in numbers? To begin with, the wetlands axolotls call home have shrunk as Mexico City’s population has increased from 3 million to 21 million people. As people have encroached on their territory, the government has diverted water from the lake for human use. This further reduces the axolotls’ habitat size. The remaining water suffers from pollution and sewage.
Additionally, the introduction of non-native carp and tilapia by farmers has imperilled the axolotl population. These fish compete with adult axolotls for limited resources as well as eat their eggs.
Thankfully, with so many axolotls in captivity, it is possible that this species will survive in some form well into the future.
The photo featured at the top of this post is © iStock.com/izanbar
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