MEXICO CITY – To save the endangered axolotl, Mexico’s iconic and scientifically significant salamander, scientists are backing creation of the Chinampa Refuge, a project that aims to restore the Aztecs’ floating agricultural fields on the lake bed at Xochimilco, on the south side of Mexico City.
The project seeks to “improve living conditions, grow crops, eliminate pesticides and get rid of fertilizers to create refuges for axolotls where the habitat is perfect for their survival,” Luis Zambrano, researcher at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), told EFE.
The team headed by Zambrano has just received a government grant of 7.5 million pesos ($397,667) to begin the first stage. The grant arrived after a six-month delay, which forced researchers to step up their efforts to restore the chinampas – the floating crop fields first used by the Aztecs – in order to save the axolotls.
“This is the start of a project we’d like to do on a large scale, which is to revegetate Xochimilco with chinampas,” said Zambrano, head of the Ecological Restoration Lab at the UNAM Biology Institute.
According to the expert, “In Xochimilco some 10 to 15 percent of chinampas are active – the rest are abandoned or are soccer fields or are built over.”
“We want to get these chinampas back for agriculture, as we Mexicans used them for 2,000 years,” he said.
The axolotl (Ambystoma mexicanum) is an amphibian belonging to the salamander and newt family, light brown in color and with external gills that crown its head like plumes. It lives among the chinampas on the lakes and canals of Xochimilco, its last remaining natural habitat.
Since the 1990s, however, Xochimilco’s decreasing supply of spring water, the contamination of its canals, urbanization of the area, and the introduction of fish for commercial fisheries like the carp, which feeds on axolotl eggs, and the tilapia, which eats its young, have greatly reduced its numbers.
The axolotl population at Xochimilco dropped from 6,000 per square kilometer (2,300 per square mile) in 1998 to just 36 per square kilometer in 2014, according to the latest census taken by Zambrano’s team.
“It’s very important biologically, because it can regenerate itself. You take out an eye, another one grows in, you extract a piece of its brain, and it grows back,” Zambrano said with reference to its importance in studying the regeneration of tissues, neuroscience and coronary research.
“If we lose the axolotl we lose a bit of Mexico, not only because the species is important biologically, but because it’s part of our culture. We use it as traditional medicine, and the painter Diego Rivera portrayed them in his murals,” Zambrano said.