Locally known as “water monsters,” axolotls are native only to Lake Xochimilco near Mexico City—but they hold an iconic place in indigenous Mexican culture.
Contrary to popular belief, axolotls are not fish—they’re amphibians! Famous for their perpetual smile, these salamanders are among the most sought-after exotic pets in the U.S.
Fun fact: Axolotl is pronounced "AK-suh-lot-ul" in American English, and "ah-SHO-loat" in the original Nahuatl.
Axolotls reach adulthood without undergoing a full metamorphosis like most amphibians. As a result, they never develop lungs and remain aquatic their entire lives. They also never grow out of adolescence, giving them that “youthful” cuteness that people love.
An Aztec icon
Axolotls are believed to be the animal representations of Xolotl, the Aztec god of the underworld. According to legend, Xolotl was asked by the other gods to make a sacrifice in order to set the Sun in motion. Instead, he fled underwater and disguised himself as an axolotl to hide from his pursuers (sadly for Xolotl, it didn’t work).
This story is a big part of local culture and tradition around Mexico City, so much so that axolotls are commonly seen in street art and plush toys. As of 2022, an axolotl will be prominently featured on the 50-peso bill.
A scientific wonder
Axolotls are also beloved by biologists—especially those studying regeneration. Like other salamanders, axolotls can regrow limbs and appendages lost to predators. But unlike any other animal, they can also generate new organs, eyes and even their brain.
It’s no surprise that scientists want to know the secret of their regeneration success. In 2018, European researchers fully sequenced the axolotl genome, the longest complete genome to be studied in this way so far. Scientists hope to use this data to heal wounds faster and even replicate regeneration in humans.
In the wild
Unfortunately, rapid urban development around the city has seriously impacted Lake Xochimilco and put these unique creatures at risk. Axolotls are critically endangered in the wild due to habitat degradation, though the species is abundant in captivity.
As a pet
Axolotls are generally hardy and easy to care for, which makes them a good exotic pet for beginners. Most health threats result from unsanitary or unsafe tank conditions, though axolotls are known to eat small rocks and gravel (which can lead to gastrointestinal obstructions).
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