Ask the axolotl

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Like bottleman, I have recently been under delusions of omnipotence. I am confident the following post is going to inspire a sense of wonder and a passion for biodiversity in everybody who reads it, and the rest of the population by association. Here goes:

I volunteer at the local science museum, and this weekend I was trained in handling the various warm-, cold-, and hot-blooded critters on display in the biology area. I handled it quite well — even when the mouse released a little turd in my palm. (It’s not fair because the animals don’t get trained in handling our handling, or the visitors’ gawking and jerky petting.) So I came in contact with creatures from all walks of life, and it was a delight. Disappointingly, I was not able to take my favorite critter, the axolotl, out of its tank, because it refuses to use its lungs.

The axolotl (ax-uh-LOT-uhl) (Usually I encourage those who suffer from the chronic reader’s disease of silent mispronunciation, and those who say pshaw to the schwa and prefer long vowels wherever possible. But correct pronunciation will be important later.) is a salamander — an amphibian. But it shuns the dual life that gives amphibians their name.

Unlike other amphibians, the axlotl remains in its larval form its entire life. It never metamorphoses, the stubborn tadpole! Still, after a year and a half or so of life, it achieves the ability to reproduce. Lungs are present in the mature axlotl, but they don’t work. Those flamboyant jester hats are gills, which move back and forth to create an oxygen-rich current in otherwise stagnant lake water. Rarely, axlotls have been artificially induced to metamorphose when pumped with hormones.

If you detected a hint of Aztec in that mouthful-of-consonants name, you were right. The etymology of the name translates it roughly as “water-dog” and relates it to Xolotl, the Aztec god of death, who turned himself into an axlotl to escape from his enemies, but was caught. Serves him right, trying to infuse a neotonic being with Death, trying to morph into a creature that doesn’t itself morph.

Axlotls’ native land is Mexico, where they are endangered. They thrive, however, in the enclosures of pet enthusiasts, zookeepers, and most of all, scientific researchers: the animal, stuffed with ever-young stem cells, has amazing regeneration abilities.

Photo by Michael Silver---thank you

But enough facts. I wanted to share with you an exchange at the museum between an axlotl and a middle-aged woman. The woman was politely trying to ask the axlotl about its peculiarities. The axlotl was not trained in customer service.

Woman. Axo–

Animal. Lotl.

Woman. Axo–

Animal. Lotl.

Woman. Axo–?

Animal. Lotl, at full throttle. Someone change the rat’s watta bottle.

Woman. Can I ask you–

Animal. Lotl.

Woman. Can I ask you–

Animal. Lotl.

Woman. Your aquarium’s the fountain of youth, I hear.

Animal. Hags take heart and fogeys lend an ear. What sets me apart is, I haven’t aged a year. Your ear’s still growin’ at seventy five, but that’ all you got, my youth is still alive. Battleax

Woman. Olotl.

Animal. Battleax

Woman. Olotl.

Animal. My cells ain’t picky and I’m procrastinatin’. The thoughta metamorphosis has got me hatin’. I’m as precious to science as C. elegans. They call me water demon or Peter Pan. But that’s Mister to you. Mister Axo

Woman. Lotl.

Animal. I said Axo

Woman. Lotl.

Animal. I don’t have to grow up, simple and pure. But I got the best of both worlds cause I’m sexually mature. I can’t ask

Woman. Olotl.

Animal. Can’t ask

Woman. For anything more.

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