Bizarre Perma-Tadpole Axolotl Now Extinct in the Wild


Every five years, scientists take a survey of the axolotl in ancient Lake Xochimilco, in southern Mexico City, the only place in the world where the amphibian still lives. In 1998 there were 6,000. In 2003 there were 1,000. In 2008 there were 100. And in 2013 there were 0. RIP axolotl, you delightful primitive weirdo.

The axolotl is a salamander, but a salamander that never undergoes metamorphosis from its tadpole stage to its adult stage, much like the millenial generation, am I right, sorry, jesus, that was awful, back to the axolotl. Neglecting to undergo metamorphosis means the axolotl demonstrates neoteny, which, creepily, refers to an animal that reaches sexual maturity without the need for a transformative maturing process like puberty. It looks mostly like an enormous tadpole, except with a few spindly useless limbs and goofy delicate external gill stalks. It can breathe air, sort of (it swallows it and pushes it through its gill stalks), but doesn’t, mostly.

It’s also all gone, in the wild. Since it’s such a weird animal, it’s no surprise that it needs a very specific sort of habitat: high-elevation freshwater lakes. Until, you know, it wasn’t, it was restricted to only Lake Xochimilco, which has been steadily drained to reduce flooding and now more resembles a bunch of canals than an enormous lake. The Mexican Academy of Sciences, which conducts these bi-decade studies, says it’s a little premature to declare it extinct in the wild, despite the fact that their study turned up not a single wild axolotl, and will embark on some quick new searches to attempt to find any stragglers.

The axolotl does survive in captivity, though. It has the ability to regrow limbs, which has proven fascinating for a generation of scientists reared on comic books (just kidding, scientists, do your research, it’s very good), and the axolotl’s general weirdness has made it a staple in the pet trade. There are some breeding and reintroduction programs, but, well, it’s hard to reintroduce an animal to a habitat that doesn’t really exist anymore. Anyway, so long, axolotl. You had a good run.

Photo by Orizatriz