Their little pink faces scrunch up into a permanent smile. Their feathery external gills dance like a carnaval crown. And they’re critically important to Mexican culture, Mexican mythology, and the ecology of our beautiful country. Of course, we’re talking about our favorite (and adorable) amphibian: the Axolotl!
Over generations, the “sacred salamander” has become one important amphibian. Their charming smiles have captured the hearts and fascination of people all around the world, but they also have enormous cultural significance in their home country of Mexico.
We’ve introduced a fun new box just for the occasion: this month’s Grande Box features an oh-so-adorable axolotl plush. To shop the Axolotl Box, pick the Grande Box here in our dulceria.
What is an Axolotl?
The axolotl is an iconic, recognizable amphibian who lives in Mexico. An offshoot species of salamander, the axolotl grows to about 12 inches in length and feasts on bugs and small fish in his lake home. They’re also a major indicator of ecological crisis in Mexico: when axolotl populations begin to die off, it’s a sure sign of pollution in their water systems.
What’s doubly fascinating about the axolotl is their unique physiology: they can regrow severed limbs, including bones, muscles, internal organs, and even parts of their brains. Scientists today study the axolotl’s regenerative capabilities for use in things like cancer treatments and the prevention of disease.
And have we mentioned they’re extremely cute? Known for their tiny, permanent smiles and flamboyant feathery gills, the axolotl is a prized part of Mexican culture and history.
Our country is even in their scientific name: Ambystoma mexicanum (although Cutelittleguy omgnicum works well, too). This is because Mexico City’s Xochimilco lake region is the only place in the world where axolotls live naturally. Axolotls you see anywhere else in the world are imports—and we’ll explain why this is such a serious problem in a minute.
Where did the Axolotl come from?
Let’s talk about the fun stuff: mythology! The reason Mexicans call the axolotl the “sacred salamander” is because of its ties to Mexican gods’ creation myths. And just looking at this adorable little guy, it’s understandable why people think he has mythical origins.
The axolotl creation story goes like this. In ancient times, the Aztec gods were preparing for the arrival of the “Fifth Sun,” the fifth and most abundant era since the world’s creation. The Aztecs believed that, before our time here on earth, the world was created and destroyed five times at the will and whim of powerful ancient gods. In order to improve during each “sun” cycle, an ancient god had to be sacrificed to start the renewal process.
So what does this have to do with the axolotl? According to the Legend of the Fifth Sun, the gods who sacrificed themselves to create that Fifth Sun became the sun god Quetzalcoatl and his twin brother, Xolotl. You’ve probably heard of Quetzalcoatl or at least seen his likeness: the feathered serpent, with turquoise and yellow colors all around. But you may not have heard as much about Xolotl — this is because he was misshapen and deformed, and spent a lot of his time hiding. There was a problem with the Fifth Sun, however: it didn’t move!
The obvious answer was to sacrifice the gods and start the renewal process again. But clever Xolotl, refusing to accept death, transformed himself into a variety of plants and animals to avoid the executioner. His final form was a little amphibian with feathery gills who hid in the lakes in Mexico. But the gods found Xolotl there, and he was eventually sacrificed.
In the meantime, the animal we know today as the axolotl is named for this shapeshifter god because of its avoidance of death. Because the axolotl can regrow parts of its body—and even its brain!—it reminded early Mexican ecologists of Xolotl’s cleverness, and that’s where it got its name.
Why is the Axolotl endangered?
You’d think a powerful, shapeshifting, death-defying god would live forever—but unfortunately, modern human culture is a major threat to the axolotl. Because there is only one place where the axolotl lives naturally—Xochimilco—bringing the axolotl anywhere else creates a direct threat to the axolotl’s survival. And because the axolotl is so unique and so fascinating (and, we admit it, so adorable), a history of over-fishing and over-capture, combined with modern threats like pollution, habitat destruction, and the introduction of predatory fish species from other countries has led to a rapid decline in axolotl populations. In fact, there are as few as 50 to one thousand axolotls left in the wild.
The axolotl is considered “critically endangered,” and Mexican zoologists and their partners around the world are doing everything they can to save this magnificent and fascinating creature.