There was a time when I thought a great deal about the axolotls. I went to see them in the aquarium at the Jardin des Plantes and stayed for hours watching them, observing their immobility, their faint movements. Now I am an axolotl.
– Axolotl, by Julio Cortazar
A deadlier, serpentine predator reappeared in Xochimilco for the axolotl: the State
The axolotl is a remarkable species of salamander with a regenerative capacity. It can reconstruct its tail, limbs, spinal cord, and even its brain. No other known vertebrate in the animal kingdom can do so to the extent of the axolotl.
They are unusual among amphibians: although they reach adulthood, they do so without typically undergoing metamorphosis.
The study of the axolotl genome could reveal genetic avenues for the implementation of tissue regrowth, since they do not heal by scarring. The axolotl is capable of the restoration of entire lost appendages within months, and readily accepts transplants from other individuals, rehabilitating eyes and parts of the brain — restoring these foreign organs to full functionality.
Axolotls are capable of surviving in tanks while in captivity, but their genetic variability may be reduced as population numbers and mating sources become restricted. Genetic variation in wild axolotl populations is essential to properly evaluate DNA sequences of this salamander for the purpose of aiding the ill. Axolotls share homologous structures with humans, such as “feet and digits, a desirable trait for modeling the regeneration of appendages1.”
The Nahua people knew of the regenerative power of the salamander. Legend has it that the god Xolotl, twin brother of the feathered snake Quetzalcoatl, hid himself in order to avoid a death by sacrifice. First, by transforming into corn; and then, in the form of maguey, a type of agave plant.
When Xolotl was discovered by Quetzalcoatl, he sought refuge underwater, taking on the appearance of the axolotl, in Nahuatl, or ajolote in Mexican-Castilian.
The amphibian is endemic to the Valley of Mexico, currently inhabiting only a few corners of a network of canals in the Xochimilco Lake that occupy a total of 180 square kilometers.
The name Xochimilco is a combination of the Nahuatl words xochitl (flower) and milli (cultivated field, full of flowers), or “a place where the flowers grow”. Built on the site of a Nahua town, Xochimilco has been known since before colonization for its floating gardens.
The local agriculturalists constructed branch and reed rafts on the lake, covered them with mud from the bottom of the body of water, and cultivated fruits, vegetables, and flowers, which they shipped to Tenochtitlán via the canal. With time, many of the rafts developed roots, and became islands. These chinampas transformed the swampy Valley of Mexico into the breadbasket of Tenochtitlán, a city that in the 16th century had grown into the largest urban center outside of Asia. This technological innovation fueled the reliable production of staple crops such as corn, beans, peppers, and other essential ingredients of the diet in the metropolis.
A large predator reappears
The so-called Desagüe was the first nail in the coffin of the axolotl and the chinampa system. Due to the natural periodic flooding of the Valley of Mexico, the Spanish colonial regime launched what is now considered by some2 to be “the greatest engineering project of colonial Spanish America [sic]." From the 16th century to the 19th century, tens of thousands of indigenous peoples were forced to tunnel and build a massive drainage network for Lake Texcoco; reducing the periodic flooding in the valley. Additions to these works continued well into the late 20th century, post-colonization.
Mexico City tripled in size between 1950 and 1975 in one of the largest urban expansions in modern times. This accelerated rate of growth resulted in great pressure on the water provisions for the city, itself a direct response to its heightened proletarianization – or rather, development, according to the official narrative.
Since then, Xochimilco has no longer been supplied with water directly from natural springs and rivers. Xochimilco receives its water from the Cerro de la Estrella treatment plant. Its management is now completely artificial.
The water became alkaline, salty and contaminated. Its overall quality varies considerably throughout the year, causing nutrient flows, the formation of algae, and changes in the food chain.
In the 1970s, the government authorities introduced carps and tilapias for the purpose of establishing aquaculture projects; nonetheless, these have massively taken over the water channels where the axolotls inhabit, becoming one of the worst threats to the survival of the Ambystoma mexicanum.
"Axolotls are in danger of extinction because of this project that did not measure the scope it could have by releasing tilapias and carps, which have no natural predators, and this has led to a deterioration of the entire chinampa area3," laments Eslava Sandoval.
The chinampa4, as we briefly presented in Marx on Mexico, is a technique used in Mesoamerican agriculture which relies on small, rectangular areas of fertile arable land to grow crops on the shallow lake beds in the Valley of Mexico.
According to Luis Zambrano González, a researcher at the Institute of Biology of the UNAM, the axolotl has an important role in its ecosystem because it is responsible for eating the aquatic microorganisms that pollute the water. Thus, Xochimilco remained crystal clear for years, but as the population of the amphibians decreased, the waters gradually became murkier.
Scientists, together with local indigenous farmers (chinamperos), are working to create an alternative axolotl restoration program5. Traditionally, these local farmers rely on the land structures that form a labyrinth of canals, connecting lakes and wetlands. Chinamperos use canal sediments for cropping, reducing chemical fertilizers. Additionally, canals surrounding the chinampas increase the wetlands’ spatial heterogeneity that seems to be necessary for axolotl survival. This indicates that it is necessary to conserve the traditional agriculture in order to restore the wetland. By sharing knowledge with chinamperos, they have obtained enough information about the species to create a restoration program focused on improving its habitat.
The specialists stated in 2007: “we now understand that population dynamics depend mostly on the survival of eggs and larvae, which is closely related to plants used by females to lay their eggs6. The axolotl is at the top of the food web in Lake Texcoco, but shares most of its food sources with the non-native carp and tilapia.”
Sweet bureaucratic waters
Bureaucracy is of course another prominent predator in the Xochimilco ecosystem. The change of government administrations every three to six years is an obstacle to proposing long-range conservation projects.
"The authorities are always interested in building infrastructure – but what we really want here is to build social infrastructure," expressed Zambrano, who assures that working with local farmers is essential to encourage the involvement in the conservation of the ecosystem.
Organized along the CPBOyCX7, residents of Xochimilco challenged the construction of the "Cuemanco Bridge", arguing that it would permanently damage the ecological balance in the highly polluted city. The judge in charge of reviewing the case, however, suspended the injunction in favor of the Mexico City Government, arguing that it was not urgent.
"Xochimilco is one of the last pieces of the flat area of the Valley of Mexico that continues to be urbanized, everything else has already been urbanized," stated Zambrano in a videoconference organized by the CPBOyCX.
"But the reason why this has not been invaded and industrialized has to do with the fact that it can be flooded, and because Mexicans have more or less been able to respect the chinampera culture."
What we have left now of Lake Texcoco, post-Desagüe, is a shadow of the former chinampa system and habitat of the axolotl. Its existence is emblematic of the history of the Valley of Mexico, inherited from the originary population and transformed by colonization.
After two years of disputes, and against the community’s will, the Mexico City government inaugurated the Periférico Sur-Oriente vehicular bridge.
The head of the Government, Claudia Sheinbaum, assured that the wetland under the bridge – built against the neighborhood’s consent – will be "much better", because it will have connectivity with other wetlands and the Ecological Park of Xochimilco.
"We propose in the injunction that the work be cancelled and that alternative projects be organized that do respect the environment" a member of the Peoples, Original Neighborhoods and Colonies of Xochimilco stated in an interview.
Residents who opposed the construction of the Cuemanco Bridge above the wetlands were suppressed by the Mexico City police last July8. Members of the CPBOyCX denounced that they were beaten by elements of the Secretaría de Seguridad Ciudadana.
The government did not consult the people of Xochimilco. Outside the court, they placed photos of the ecocide committed for the construction of the vehicular bridge, and protested against the Ecological Park of Xochimilco and the use of public funds fueled to rehabilitate the park, which they deemed as "not the rehabilitation that the area of Xochimilco and Tláhuac request, and even if this bridge is inaugurated we will continue to fight to have it removed," they said.
The Periférico Sur and Canal Nacional Vehicular Bridge project in the Xochimilco municipality fragments the hydrological flow of the Ramsar wetland. Although the site was already divided, there were subterranean canals that allowed the exchange of water between the two parts.
It is noteworthy9 that the city government moved forward with the construction of the six-lane bridge, which began in February 2020, without an environmental impact assessment. This occurred under the "Environmental Impact Facilities Agreement for public works and/or activities in Mexico City” a modification to local regulations to expedite these processes.
Yesterday: El Ajolotón
The mayors of the ruling party, MORENA, from the municipalities of Gustavo A. Madero, Iztacalco, Iztapalapa, Tláhuac, Milpa Alta and Xochimilco met in what they baptized the 'Ajolotón', a photo-op ceremony celebrating the release of several endemic salamanders into the Lake Xochimilco.
The event was held at the Michmani Ecotourism Park, headed by the mayor of Xochimilco, José Carlos Acosta. The official expressed that they chose this animal because it resembles the movement of the fourth transformation (4T), Andres Manuel López Obrador’s selected regime nomenclature. Acosta stated that, "unlike other animals”, the axolotl was picked because “it is regeneration, it is transformation, it is metamorphosis, it is what we are doing in our municipalities. This little animal is capable of representing that resistance that we manifest in the most difficult conditions – and we always come out ahead".
Several experts claim that the MORENA mayors condemned the released salamanders to death. Pamela Valencia, founder of the Museo del Ajolote, assured that the event only reflects a lack of information on the part of public servants.
Throughout the function, dozens of specimens were released by the state representatives; however, different organizations and advocacy groups pointed out that the lake – where the State liberators gladly smiled while thronged by crowds of reporters and photographers – is highly polluted. The experts and advocacy groups understood the performance for the preservation of the axolotls had the potential to be counterproductive.
Shortly after, the official Twitter account of the Xochimilco mayor's office deleted the photos in which the municipal leaders held the animals in their hands. Axolotls are highly sensitive due to the structure of their skin, and the health risks that the species might encounter after the forced exposure could lead to an infection; although, this is yet to be examined.
Regarding the controversial criticism derived from the photo-op, Manuel Rodríguez, dressed in an axolotl crest, explained that if the axolotls are indeed released to meet their death, it was a risk worth taking10. He added, optimistically, to be aware it is likely that only “89% will survive.”
On Friday morning, Clara Brugada, defended the release, arguing: "The axolotls that were released, in a symbolic way, were big enough to survive in the lakes of Xochimilco".
She added that the activity was not improvised, stating that the event was “being supported by the UNAM’s Institute of Biology and their specialists, such as Dr. Luis Zambrano.”
To this, on his Twitter account, Dr. Zambrano emphatically stated: “We were not involved in this event. For more than 15 years we have considered that axolotl releases are detrimental to the species itself, and to the deterioration of its habitat.”
Diana11, a member of the Ecological Restoration Laboratory (LRE), a subdivision of the Biology Institute of the National Autonomous University of Mexico12, explained that “this action only represents the ignorance and devaluation of the work of the chinamperos who have worked for years in the implementation of shelters for the axolotl, merging very profound studies built from the exchange of ancestral wisdom and science.” The reasons being,
The quality of the water does not guarantee the survival of these 2,000 axolotls.
The presence of carp and tilapia prevents ordinary food chain dynamics to develop as they traditionally would, because they eat the axolotls.
The decrease of native species of aquatic plants affects the availability of space for this organism to reproduce, feed, and protect itself.
It is indispensable to partake in premeditated studies to reintroduce the axolotls back into the habitat.
“It would seem easy, almost obvious, to fall into mythology,” tells us Julio Cortázar in his short story13, Axolotl (1967). “I began seeing in the axolotls a metamorphosis which did not succeed in revoking a mysterious humanity. I imagined them aware, slaves of their bodies, condemned infinitely to the silence of the abyss, to a hopeless meditation. Their blind gaze, the diminutive gold disc without expression and nonetheless terribly shining, went through me like a message: "Save us, save us."
Dr. Randal Voss, director of the Ambystoma Genetic Stock Center (AGSC) at the University of Kentucky.
Cope, R. Douglas, "Desagüe", Encyclopedia of Latin American History and Culture, vol. 2, p. 368.
Eslava-Sandoval, Dionisio, Tovar, Armando, Valiente, Elsa, Zambrano, Luis, González, Homán. (2010). Creating Refuges for the Axolotl (Ambystoma mexicanum). Ecological Restoration.
Marx, Karl. The London notebooks of 1851, “Marx on Mexico” (2022), as translated by taller ahuehuete.
(Zambrano et al. 2010).
(Valiente 2006, Marín 2007).
Coordinación de Pueblos, Barrios Originarios y Colonias de Xochimilco.
Aida-Americas, Mandan alerta internacional sobre las amenazas de puente vehicular a Xochimilco (2021).
Rodrigo Neria Cano, La foto de la desgracia: alcaldes de CDMX usan ajolotes vivos para montar su escena.
Ecological Restoration Laboratory (LRE), a subdivision of the Biology Institute of the National Autonomous University of Mexico.
Cortázar, Julio. “Axolotl”. New York: Pantheon Books, 1967.