Axolotls Could Change the Future of Regenerative Medicine, but They’re Endangered
The small salamander known as the axolotl has the ability to regrow tissues, even parts of the brain. However, human development and climate change have almost wiped them from the planet.
You’ve probably seen them somewhere on the internet, whether it be Instagram, TikTok, or a random nature video, but the cute salamander in every online corner is becoming harder and harder to find in the wild.
The axolotl is famous for its exceptional regenerative abilities, youthful look, and all around adorable face, so why are the axolotls endangered?
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Why are the axolotls endangered?
The carnivorous salamander native to the lakes of Mexico, the axolotl (pronounced AX-oh-lot-ul), is facing extinction primarily due to human development, habitat loss, droughts, wastewater disposal, and climate change, per National Geographic.
According to Reuters, axolotls once swam all throughout Xochimilco's canals, however, polluted water due to urban sprawl and the increase in non-native species competition has led the population to decrease.
Although the axolotl is often bred in labs and captivity, they continue to decline in the canals of Mexico City, their only remaining natural habitat.
According to Vox, axolotl habitat destruction started as early as the Spanish invasion during colonization, where the growth and development of Mexico City sent chemicals and sewage into local waterways, changing ecosystems forever. Since then, fertilizers, pollution, chemicals, etc. have only increased, as well as the introduction of non-native species that outcompete native species like axolotls.
Climate change is not helping.
As noted by the U.S. Geological Survey, droughts have increased with climate change, and thus all over Mexico, even eliminating an entire natural habitat for the axolotl, Lake Texaco. This leaves Lake Xochimilco as the singular natural habitat for the axolotl, with no telling how long until it dries up, per Earthday.org.
The axolotl isn't like other amphibians.
Axolotls have been popular in the aquarium and pet trade since the 19th century, traveling from Mexico to all over Europe.
The axolotl has been studied for its impressive ability to regrow tissues in the skin, muscles, heart, brain, etc., and its capacity to resist cancerous tissues. Because of its unique abilities, the axolotl was even considered in legends as Xototl, the Aztec god of fire and lightning, disguised as a salamander.
Axolotls live anywhere from 10 to 15 years and differ from other salamanders and amphibians because they seem to stay young forever, a marvel called neoteny, where they keep their baby traits and physical features their whole life.
However, although they remain cute, they are carnivorous and feed on crustaceans, mollusks, eggs, and fish, per National Geographic.
Scientists believe the axolotl is crucial to regenerative medicine.
A research article published in 2016 by the Department of Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology at Harvard University found that axolotls are able to regrow parts of their brain after injury, growing diverse sets of neurons.
Their ability to do this, along with regrowing entire parts of their body with not so much as a scar, is deemed a superpower in the scientific world. According to an interview between the Boston Museum of Science and Fallon Durant, an axolotl researcher, scientists are studying axolotls to determine what parts of their DNA help them regenerate, and resist things like cancer. If this can be understood and replicated, it could be a game changer for human therapeutics.