The elusive and mythical axolotl, woven into Aztec legend, seems to have gotten a reprieve. After declaring it potentially extinct a month ago, biologists have caught a glimpse of the salamander-like creature in its habitat in the southern outskirts of Mexico City.
Since long before pre-Columbian times, the shy amphibian has lived in the environs that are today known as Xochimilco, the network of canals that are the remnants of what used to be the lake that the Aztecs originally built on. The axolotl is known for being able to regenerate not just limbs but also heart and brain cells, according to the Los Angeles Times. Its demise would therefore be a blow to research as well as to the environment, biologists say.
While millions of axolotls once teemed in lakes Xochimilco and Chalco—among a series of interconnected bodies of water that the Spanish conquerors drained in order to build Mexico City—the animal’s population has plummeted from about 6,000 per square kilometer in 1998, to 1,000 in 2003 and then to a mere 100 in 2008, according to the Associated Press. Flash forward to last year, when an exhaustive search over weeks turned up none.
Now, a few have been spotted lurking among the reeds in the marshy environs, which are polluted with everything from pesticides to raw sewage. It is the only natural habitat of the “water monster,” or Mexican walking fish, as the axolotl is also known. On February 21, Armando Tovar Garza, a biologist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, said his team had seen two of them.
"We weren't able to capture them … because the behavior of the axolotl makes them very difficult to capture," Tovar Garza told the AP. "We haven't had any captures, but we have had two sightings. That's important, because it tells us we still have a chance."
Without those in the wild, the endangered animal would only survive in captivity.