Mexico CityIn Mexico City’s hip Roma neighborhood, the patio of Monstruo de Agua buzzes with young people chatting over smoked avocado ceviche, tempura mushrooms and craft beers. Each beer from the microbrewery bears a label with an image of the original axolotl, with its crown of feather-like gills.
The brewery chose the critically endangered salamander as its mascot in hopes of raising awareness among the Mexican public, says founder Matías Vera-Cruz Dutrenit. “If our product is good, it can act as a good animal ambassador,” he says.
Named after the Aztec god of fire and lightning, Xolotl, the axolotl has been an important symbol of Mexican culture for centuries. Monstruo del Agua means “aquatic monster”, which is the Spanish translation of the word axolotl from Nahuatl, the language of the ancient Aztecs.
Once widespread in the high-altitude lakes surrounding Mexico City, these foot-long amphibians are now restricted to a few inland channels near Lake Xochimilco, where only between 50 and a thousand survive. This precariously small population faces a barrage of threats: water pollution; predation by invasive carp and tilapia; and most importantly, habitat loss.
As the salamander has declined over the past decade, public awareness of the axolotl has blossomed. Axolotls are now characters in the online game Minecraft and the global gaming platform Roblox. The new 50 peso, released at the end of 2021, features the axolotl as a cover pattern.
Axolotls – normally brown or gray in the wild – have also become extremely popular as pets, which are usually white with pink highlights, a genetic mutation caused by captive breeding. (Read how Mexican nuns are working to help axolotls.)
Despite the wide recognition, Luis Zambrano, an axolotl expert at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, is skeptical whether the new bill or the axolotl’s growing fame will result in meaningful change.
“We have millions of [captive] axolotls around the world,” Zambrano says, but “we need the habitat” — a daunting task in a sprawling metropolis of 22 million people, he says.
There is “no miracle solution for the conservation of this species”.
Monstruo de Agua serves approximately 300 direct suppliers and in 2020 began exporting to stores in the United States.
Using axolotl imagery on his company label comes with a moral obligation, says Dutrenit, who was born in Mexico City. For one thing, the company provides press kits to its beer vendors with basic information about axolotls and how to protect them.
As he tastes hummus from his menu one December afternoon, Dutrenit speaks passionately about the parallels between axolotls and his company values: Mexican heritage, regeneration and sustainability. (Learn more about the movement to brew greener beers.)
The salamander can regrow lost or damaged limbs, hearts, spinal cords, and even parts of their brains. Likewise, says Dutrenit, his company uses regenerative farming practices for its indigenous ingredients, such as agave and amaranth. This includes the use of polycropping – or growing more than one crop at a time, a practice that improves soil quality.
Finally, the company is committed to sustainable development. This includes using rainwater in beer production and transporting goods by bicycle, all intended to reduce human impact on Mexico City’s environment, including the axolotl’s Xochimilco habitat.
Habitat restoration: crucial but challenging
In 1993, the Mexican government took steps to protect the axolotl’s habitat by designating the 530-acre Xochimilco Ecological Park and Plant Market. But progress has been slow: Pollution from sewage treatment plants and urbanization still threatens much of the region, Zambrano says.
That’s why Zambrano and his colleagues developed a plan B for axolotls, establishing temporary ponds for captive salamanders. In a recent experiment, 11 pairs of lab-bred axolotls were released, one at a time, into three ponds on the college campus. The results were encouraging: seven of the 11 pairs hatched and the surviving juveniles were healthy.
So far, these captive axolotls serve as an insurance population: Zambrano said scientists won’t release them to Xochimilco unless the wild population disappears completely.
Traditional farming saves salamanders
Dionisio Eslava Sandoval, Xochimilco native and community organizer takes matters into its own hands by restoring the pre-Hispanic tradition chinampasartificial agricultural islands surrounded by narrow channels that filter pollution.
Chinampas provide the perfect habitat for axolotls, but 95% of them are unproductive, either overgrown or abandoned as traditional agriculture has declined.
Most foreigners know Xochimilco for its brightly colored party boats called trajineras, which take tourists on cruises through the region’s network of canals. But on this clear morning, our personal captain trajinera has a different mission. He steers his boat past a Xochimilco sign with a smiling bright pink axolotl and stops at the recently restored Sandoval chinampa.
As Sandoval disembarks, he recalls how far his chinampa has come; Once a “huge dump,” it’s now a thriving farm of about 2,000 square feet, producing carrots, garlic, broccoli and other crops grown with native seeds and organic farming methods. .
Sandoval’s chinampa is also the new home of 11 axolotls, which Sandoval – with a government permit – moved from the main canal system into interconnecting ditches, where two screen-like filters keep out heavy metals and other pollutants, as well than carp and tilapia. Landowners and farmers of similar nearby ditches have released at least 240 other axolotls using this method.
Although he doesn’t work directly with Sandoval, Zambrano and his team manage the Chinampa Refuge Project, which has created 20 similar axolotl refuges with the help of 28 local Chinampa farmers, also relocating animals from the main canals.
Sandoval hopes more people will follow. “The idea is for it to grow,” he said. “How do you educate people? With an example.
Luis Antonio Rojas is a National Geographic explorer and documentary photographer based in Mexico City. Follow him on Instagram.
The National Geographic Society, committed to illuminating and protecting the wonders of our world, funded Rojas’ work. Learn more about the Society’s support for explorers.