Cabinet of Curiosities: Axolotl
Lifelong tadpole, critically endangered, possessing “superhealing” abilities that could answer some of medicine’s greatest questions: the axolotl has a truly fascinating story. With rare exceptions, it seems to have lost interest in metamorphosis – unlike other amphibians, it stays in a larval stage for its entire life, keeping its plumage of external gills and never leaving the water. In the wild, it survives only in isolated parts of canals that once formed Lake Xochimilco, now almost completely subsumed by Mexico City. But it lives all over the world in captivity, as a popular aquarium pet and a research subject.
The axolotl’s “superhealing” has probably made it one of the most studied amphibians on earth: individuals are able to heal massive amounts of damage, regenerate entire lost limbs without scarring, and even regrow portions of their central nervous systems. This gives biomedical scientists hope that the species can provide clues for human medicine, with applications from burn treatment to cancer recovery. But even as its value to science grows, the its populations are shrinking: a team from the National Autonomous University of Mexico has estimated that there may be only 700 to 1200 axolotls left in the wild. Even as its regenerative abilities offer hope for science, how to save the axolotl from habitat loss, pollution and introduced competitors and diseases remains a question without an answer.