The number of axolotls (pronounced ACK-suh-LAH-tuhl) in the wild is not known. But the population has dropped from roughly 1,500 per square mile in 1998 to a mere 25 per square mile this year, according to a survey by Zambrano's scientists using casting nets.
It has been a steep fall from grace for the salamander with a feathery mane of gills and a visage reminiscent of a 1970s Smiley Face that inspired American poet Ogden Nash to pen the witticism: "I've never met an axolotl, But Harvard has one in a bottle."
Millions once lived in the giant lakes of Xochimilco and Chalco on which Mexico City was built. Using four stubby legs to drag themselves along lake bottoms or their thick tails to swim like mini-alligators, they hunted plentiful aquatic insects, small fish and crustaceans.
Legend has it that Xolotl — the dog-headed Aztec god of death, lightning and monstrosities — feared he was about to be banished or killed by other gods and changed into an axolotl to flee into Lake Xochimilco.
The axolotl's decline began when Spanish conquerors started draining the lakes, which were further emptied over time to slake the thirst of one of the world's largest and fastest-growing cities. In the 1970s, Lake Chalco was completely drained to prevent flooding. In the 1980s, Mexico City began pumping its wastewater into the few canals and lagoons that remained of Xochimilco.
Hopefully the captive animals in the United States and elsewhere could be used in the future to replenish wild supplies, but first the non-native predators would have to be exterminated, so it does not look good for the little axolotl.
h/t and photo by ecov ottos (Xian)