Mexico City's 'water monster' nears extinction
The axolotl, a key part of Aztec legend and diet, faces new threats
MEXICO CITY - Beneath the tourist gondolas in the remains of a great Aztec lake lives a creature that resembles a monster — and a Muppet — with its slimy tail, plumage-like gills and mouth that curls into an odd smile.
The axolotl, also known as the "water monster" and the "Mexican walking fish," was a key part of Aztec legend and diet. Against all odds, it survived until now amid Mexico City's urban sprawl in the polluted canals
of Lake Xochimilco, now a Venice-style destination for revelers poled along by Mexican gondoliers, or trajineros, in brightly painted party boats.
But scientists are racing to save the foot-long salamander from extinction, a victim of the draining of its lake habitat and deteriorating water quality. In what may be the final blow, nonnative fish introduced
into the canals are eating its lunch — and its babies.
About 20 years ago, African tilapia were introduced
into Xochimilco in a misguided effort to create fisheries. They joined with Asian carp to dominate the ecosystem and eat the axolotl's eggs and compete with it for food.
The axolotl is also threatened by agrochemical runoff from nearby farms and treated wastewater from a Mexico City sewage plant, researchers say.
Local fisherman Roberto Altamira, 32, recalls when he was a boy, and the axolotl was still part of the local diet.
"I used to love axolotl tamales," he says, rubbing his stomach and laughing.
But he says people no longer eat axolotls, mainly because fishermen almost never find them.
"The last one I caught was about six months ago," says Altamira, a wiry gondolier with rope-like muscles from years of poling through Xochimilco's narrow waterways.
On a 9-foot-wide canal covered by a green carpet of "lentejilla" — an aquatic plant that resembles green lentils — Zambrano's researchers test water quality and search for axolotls. The air smells of sulfur and sewage.