The native habitats of A. mexicanum are large, relatively permanent (until recently), high-altitude lakes located near Mexico City. Of the two lakes - Chalco and Xochimilco - where these animals are historically native, only Xochimilco (elevation: ~ 2,274 m) remains. Axolotls are almost extinct in their native habitat, largely due to the introduction of predatory fishes and habitat loss. ("Xochimilco", 2003; Shaffer, 1989)
Axolotls are paedomorphic or neotenic aquatic salamanders, meaning they retain certain larval characteristics in the adult, reproductive state. They possess feathery external gills and finned tails for swimming. Laboratory animals exist in several color morphs, ranging from wild type (dark, mottled brownish-green) to albino. Axolotls reach lengths on average of 20 cm (9 inches), but can grow to more than 30 cm (12 inches) in length. (Brunst, 1955a)
The sexes can be easily distinguished in adult axolotls. Males can be identified by their enlarged cloaca (similar to other urodeles), while females have a smaller cloaca and round, plump bodies. (Brunst, 1955a)
A. mexicanum is paedomorphic, which means that it retains larval characteristics in the reproductively mature adult form. Juvenile and adult axolotls possess feathery, external gills and tail fins suited to an aquatic lifestyle. Metamorphosis can be induced in axolotls via thyroid hormone injections. In the wild, axolotls rarely, if ever, metamorphose.
The courtship behavior of A. mexicanum follows the general Ambystoma pattern; it first involes each animal nudging the other's cloacal region, eventually leading to a "waltz," with both animals moving in a circle. Next, the male moves away while undulating the posterior part of his body and tail (resembling a "hula dance"), and the female follows. The male will deposit a spermatophore (a cone-shaped jelly mass with a sperm cap) by vigorously shaking his tail for about half a minute, and will then move forward one body length. The female then moves over the spermatophore, also shaking her tail, and picks up the spermatophore with her cloaca. (Eisthen, 1989)
Axolotls breed in the wild generally from March to June. From 100 to 300 eggs are deposited in the water and attached to substrates. Eggs hatch at 10 to 14 days and the young are immediately independent. Sexual maturity is reached in the next breeding season. (Eisthen, 1989)
Eggs are surrounded by a protective jelly coat and are laid singly, unlike frog eggs (which are laid in clumped masses), because they possess higher oxygen requirements. They are often attached to substrates such as rocks or floating vegetation.
Expected laboratory longevity is 5 to 6 years; however, some animals have been known to live as long as 10 to 15 years. Most laboratory animals die shortly after metamorphosis. (Brunst, 1955a)
Axolotls are solitary and may be active at any time of the day.
Axolotls communicate mainly via visual cues and chemical cues during mating. At other times of the year there is little to no intraspecific communication.
Axolotls can detect electrical fields and also use their vision and chemical cues to perceive their environment and discover prey.
Generally the top predator in their natural environment, axolotls will eat anything that they can catch, including molluscs, fishes, and arthropods, as well as conspecifics. (Shaffer, 1989)
Axolotls may be preyed on by large fish and conspecifics. Large fish have only recently been introduced into the lakes where axolotls are found, contributing to the demise of their populations.
Axolotls were the top predator in their native environment, making them important in structuring community dynamics.
Axolotls are an important research animal and have been used in studies of the regulation of gene expression, embryology, neurobiology, and regeneration. Occasionally taken as a food item (substituted for fish), axolotls are prepared by either roasting or boiling and the tail is eaten with vinegar or cayenne pepper. They have also been used for medicinal purposes. (Smith, et al., 1989; Brunst, 1955a)
There are no negative effects of axolotls on humans.
The natural habitat of A. mexicanum is nearly gone. Historically, they have been known to live in high altitude lakes near Mexico City. Lake Chalco is gone completely, drained for drinking water, and Lake Xochimilco is now nothing more than a scattering of canals and swamps. Because known populations are few and far between, very little is known about the ecology and natural history of A. mexicanum; there have been few ecological studies on wild populations. (Brandon, et al., 1989)
The word "axolotl" comes from the native Aztec language, or nahuatl. It roughly translates to: water slave, water servant, water sprite, water player, water monstrosity, water twin, or water dog. All of these names refer to the Aztec god Xolotl, brother to Quetzacoatl and patron of the dead and ressurrected (where he took the form of a dog), games, grotesque (read: ugly) beings, and twins. Aztec lore states that Xolotl transformed himself into, among other things, an axolotl to escape banishment. He was captured, killed, and used to feed the sun and moon. (Shaffer, 1989; Smith, 1969)
Larvae of other ambystomids, such as the larval stage of the tiger salamander, A. tigrinum, are often erroneously referred to as axolotls. The name axolotl should be used only when referring to A. mexicanum and not to any other ambystomid salamander. Historically, the Mexican axolotl has been listed under more than 40 different names and spellings; all, except A. mexicanum, have been rejected by the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN). (Brunst, 1955a; Brunst, 1955b; Smith, 1969; Smith, et al., 1989)
The closest relative of A. mexicanum is thought to be A. tigrinum, the tiger salamander. Indeed, the larvae of these species are visually very similar. Some even consider the axolotl to be a subspecies of the tiger salamander; viable offspring can be produced between the two species in the laboratory, though no hybrids have as of yet been discovered in the wild. (Brandon, et al., 1989; Smith, 1969; Smith, et al., 1989)
Axolotls are excellent lab specimens as they are easy to raise and inexpensive to feed. They are renowned for their amazing regenerative capabilities, have been used widely in developmental studies, and, because of their large cells (they are polyploid), are often used in histological studies. (Brunst, 1955a; Smith, et al., 1989)
Nearly all modern laboratory axolotls can be traced back to 33 animals shipped from Xochimilco to Paris in 1864. They are one of the most widely used and studied laboratory animals. (Smith, 1969; Smith, et al., 1989)
Tanya Dewey (editor), Animal Diversity Web.
Amy Majchrzak (author), Michigan State University.
living in the southern part of the New World. In other words, Central and South America.
having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.
an animal that mainly eats meat
uses smells or other chemicals to communicate
a substance used for the diagnosis, cure, mitigation, treatment, or prevention of disease
animals which must use heat acquired from the environment and behavioral adaptations to regulate body temperature
uses electric signals to communicate
union of egg and spermatozoan
A substance that provides both nutrients and energy to a living thing.
mainly lives in water that is not salty.
An animal that eats mainly insects or spiders.
fertilization takes place within the female's body
offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).
A large change in the shape or structure of an animal that happens as the animal grows. In insects, "incomplete metamorphosis" is when young animals are similar to adults and change gradually into the adult form, and "complete metamorphosis" is when there is a profound change between larval and adult forms. Butterflies have complete metamorphosis, grasshoppers have incomplete metamorphosis.
eats mollusks, members of Phylum Mollusca
having the capacity to move from one place to another.
specialized for swimming
active during the night
reproduction in which eggs are released by the female; development of offspring occurs outside the mother's body.
the business of buying and selling animals for people to keep in their homes as pets.
chemicals released into air or water that are detected by and responded to by other animals of the same species
an animal that mainly eats fish
the kind of polygamy in which a female pairs with several males, each of which also pairs with several different females.
breeding is confined to a particular season
remains in the same area
reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female
uses sight to communicate
animal constituent of plankton; mainly small crustaceans and fish larvae. (Compare to phytoplankton.)
Encyclopædia Britannica Premium Service. 2003. Xochimilco. Encyclopaedia Britannica. Accessed 06/13/03 at http://www.britannica.com/eb/article?.eu=79786.
Brandon, R., J. Armstrong, G. Malacinski. 1989. Natural history of the axolotl and its relationship to other ambystomid salamanders. Pp. 13-21 in Developmental biology of the axolotl. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, Inc..
Brunst, V. 1955. The axolotl (Siredon mexicanum) I. As material for scientific research. Laboratory Investigation, 4: 45-64.
Brunst, V. 1955. The axolotl (Siredon mexicanum) II. Morphology and pathology. Laboratory Investigation, 4: 429-449.
Eisthen, H. 1989. Courtship and mating behavior in the axolotl. Axolotl Newsletter, 18: 18-19.
Shaffer, H. 1989. Natural history, ecology, and evolution of the Mexican "axolotls". Axolotl Newsletter, 18: 5-11.
Smith, H. 1969. The Mexican axolotl: some misconceptions and problems. BioScience, 19: 593-597.
Smith, H., J. Armstrong, G. Malacinski. 1989. Discovery of the axolotl and its early history in biological research. Pp. 3-12 in Developmental biology of the axolotl. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, Inc..