Ecologists from the National Autonomous University of Mexico on Friday relaunched a fundraising campaign to bolster conservation efforts for axolotls, an iconic, endangered fish-like type of salamander.
The campaign, called “Adoptaxolotl,” asks people for as little as 600 pesos (US$35) to virtually adopt one of the tiny “water monsters.” Virtual adoption comes with live updates on your axolotl’s health. For less, donors can buy one of the creatures a virtual dinner.
In their main habitat the population density of Mexican axolotls has plummeted 99.5 percent in under two decades, scientists behind the fundraiser said.
Last year’s Adoptaxolotl campaign raised just more than 450,000 pesos toward an experimental captive breeding program and efforts to restore habitat in the ancient Aztec canals of Xochimilco, a southern borough of Mexico City.
Still, there are not enough resources for thorough research, said Alejandro Calzada, an ecologist surveying less well-known species of axolotls for the Mexican Secretariat of Environment and Natural Resources.
“We lack big monitoring of all the streams in Mexico City,” let alone the whole country, said Calzada, who leads a team of nine researchers. “For this large area it is not enough.”
Despite the creature’s recent rise to popularity, almost all 18 species of axolotl in Mexico remain critically endangered, threatened by encroaching water pollution, a deadly amphibian fungus and non-native rainbow trout.
While scientists could once find 6,000 axolotls on average per square kilometer in Mexico, there are now only 36, the National Autonomous University’s latest census found.
A more recent international study found less than a thousand Mexican axolotls left in the wild.
Luis Zambrano Gonzalez, one of the university’s scientists announcing the fundraiser, said that he hopes to begin a new census — the first since 2014 — in March.
“There is no more time for Xochimilco,” Zambrano said. “The invasion” of pollution “is very strong: soccer fields, floating dens. It is very sad.”
Without data on the number and distribution of different axolotl species in Mexico, it is hard to know how long the creatures have left, and where to prioritize what resources are available.
“What I know is that we have to work urgently,” Calzada said.
Axolotls have grown into a cultural icon in Mexico for their unique, admittedly slimy, appearance and uncanny ability to regrow limbs. In labs around the world, scientists think this healing power could hold the secret to tissue repair and even cancer recovery.
In the past, government conservation programs have largely focused on the most popular species — the Mexican axolotl, found in Xochimilco — but other species can be found across the country, from tiny streams in the valley of Mexico to the northern Sonora Desert.
Mexico City’s expanding urbanization has damaged the water quality of the canals, while in lakes around the capital rainbow trout which escape from farms can displace axolotls and eat their food.
Calzada said his team is increasingly finding axolotls dead from chrytid fungus, a skin-eating disease causing catastrophic amphibian die-offs from Europe to Australia.
While academics rely on donations and Calzada’s team turns to a corps of volunteers, the Mexican government recently approved an 11 percent funding cut for its environment department.
Over its six year term the administration of Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador would have given 35 percent less money to the country’s environment department than its predecessor, an analysis of Mexico’s budget for next year showed.
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