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To save axolotls, a campaign in Mexico asks people to virtually adopt them

Axolotls became an internet sensation in 2021 after the video game Minecraft added the species into its universe.
Axolotls became an internet sensation in 2021 after the video game Minecraft added the species into its universe.

Despite their never-ceasing grins, axolotls have been at risk of extinction for years.

Over two decades ago, there were about 6,000 of these tiny salamanders for every square kilometer in Lake Xochimilco in Mexico City. In the last count from 2014, there were only about 36 axolotls per square kilometer, according to Luis Zambrano, who was involved in the axolotl census.

"It's gotten worse. They're not completely extinct, but it's worse," said Zambrano, who is also an ecologist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

Although their population has dwindled dramatically over the years, the creatures are more popular than ever thanks to social media and the video game Minecraft. Becoming an online sensation has also led to real-world impact in pet stores, where demand for axolotls has skyrocketed.

Now, Zambrano's team is hoping axolotls' newfound global popularity will help save the species from going extinct.

Last week, the National Autonomous University relaunched a campaignto virtually adopt an axolotl, which will allow donors to name their salamander and receive a certificate of adoption. There are also options to help pay for an axolotl's meal or its habitat.

The money collected from the fundraiser will go toward conservation efforts to help the population thrive in the wild. The same campaign was launched last year and raised nearly $30,000 — enough to maintain about 40 refuges. But in order for axolotls to return to a healthy population, they will need 10 times that number, according to Zambrano.

The biggest threat to axolotls comes from humans. Mexico City's growing population has depleted Lake Xochimilco, where a majority of the world's axolotls live. Urbanization has also taken a toll on the wetland's water quality, which in turn, makes axolotls sick.

"It's a slow death basically," Zambrano said.

Fish like carp and tilapia, which eat axolotl eggs and compete for their resources, are also partly to blame.

That's why the campaign's aquatic refuges can be a game changer for the amphibians, according to Zambrano. These sanctuaries, made possible by installing filters in Lake Xochimilco's canals, are pest-free and tend to have better water quality than the rest of the wetland.

Aside from bringing joy on the internet, axolotls play a major role in improving water quality. They have also been a cherished species in Mexico since the Aztec civilization.

Axolotls are also a biological wonder, given their ability to regenerate tissue and stay young. Zambrano said scientists have only scratched the surface in understanding the significance of axolotls.

What is in our grasp, he added, is protecting the species.

"We know what to do. We know where to do it. And we know that if we do that in those places, we will have a healthy population of axolotls," Zambrano said. "But if society doesn't care too much, it doesn't matter what we know. It will go extinct."
Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Juliana Kim
Juliana Kim is a weekend reporter for Digital News, where she adds context to the news of the day and brings her enterprise skills to NPR's signature journalism.