CLOSE

11 Awesome Axolotl Facts

With big branch-like gills, lizard-like limbs, and a cute perma-smile, it’s hard not to fall in love with the axolotl. 

1. Don’t worry, we’ll help you pronounce it.

Phonetically, it’s “Ax-oh-lot-ul.” Atl means "water" and xolotl means "dog," after the Xolotl, the canine Aztec deity.

2. Wild axolotls are rarely white.

While you might see plenty of white ones in captivity, the animal is normally greenish brown or black. White ones are known as “leucistic” and descend from a mutant male that was shipped to Paris in 1863. They were then specially bred to be white with black eyes (different from albinos, which generally have red eyes).

3. Their feathery headdress is not just for show.

iStock

The impossibly silly branches that grow from the axolotl’s head might not seem practical, but they’re actually the salamander’s gills. The filaments attached to the long gills increase surface area for gas exchange.

4. Wild ones can only be found in one place.

iStock

While you can find axolotls in aquariums and laboratories all over the world, it’s much harder to find them in the wild. The animals can only be found in the lakes and canals of Xochimilco, Mexico. The axolotl eats small fish, worms, and anything it can find that will fit in its mouth.

5. They’re critically endangered.

As a result of habitat loss, pollution, and the introduction of invasive species like tilapia and carp, these salamanders are being pushed closer and closer to extinction.

In an attempt to revive the species, researchers have built “shelters” made from reeds and rocks to filter the water and create a more desirable living space. Unfortunately, the numbers continue to decline. There were about 6000 wild axolotls documented in a 1998 survey, but today, researchers are lucky to find any. For a brief amount of time in 2014, biologists failed to find a single water dog, and feared the salamanders had gone extinct in the wild. Luckily, some have since been found roaming the water. And although it's not ideal, even if the elusive animal disappears from the wild entirely, the species continues to thrive in captivity.

6. You can eat them.

Before the axolotl was an endangered species, Xochimilco natives would chow down on the salamanders. Axolotl tamales were a favorite, served whole with cornmeal. In 1787, Francesco Clavigero wrote that, "the axolotl is wholesome to eat, and is of much the same taste with an eel. It is thought to be particularly useful in cases of consumption.”

Today, you can still taste one of these creatures—but you might have to travel to Japan to do it. A restaurant in Osaka serves whole axolotls, deep-fried. They apparently taste like white fish meat, but with a crunch.

7. They have a mythological background.

Travis, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

Xolotl was a dog-headed god from Aztec mythology. God of all things grim, the deity would lead the souls of the dead to the underworld. As with all mythology, there a lot of mixed accounts about what happened next, but some believe that Xolotl was fearful of being killed and transformed into an axolotl to hide. The salamander is trapped in the water of Xochimilco, unable to transform and walk on land.

8. Axolotls exhibit Neoteny.

iStock

Neoteny means that a creature can reach maturity without going through metamorphosis. In less extreme cases, it’s simply exhibiting juvenile traits after reaching adulthood. Axolotls are a great example of neoteny because as they grow bigger, they never mature. Unlike tadpoles or similar animals, axolotls hold on to their gills and stay in the water, despite actually growing lungs.

“The one thing that neotenic species have as an advantage is that if you don’t undergo this metamorphosis, you’re more likely to reproduce sooner. You’re already one step ahead,” biologist Randal Voss told WIRED.

9. But sometimes they can grow up with a little push.

iStock

Sometimes as a result of a mutation, or a shot of iodine from a scientist, axolotls can be forced out of their safe watery home. The shot gives the animal a rush of hormones that leads to a sudden maturation (in humans, this known as “getting kicked out of your parent’s basement"). The axolotls become strikingly similar to their close relative, the tiger salamander, but they continue to only breed with their own kind.

Transforming your aquatic friend into a land-dweller might seem cool, but leave it to the professionals; Axolotl.org strongly urges owners to never interfere with their pets’ biology, because it will likely be fatal.

10. Regeneration is no problem for them.

iStock

It’s not unusual for amphibians to be able to regenerate, but axolotls take it to the next level. On top of being able to regenerate limbs, the animal can also rebuild their jaws, spines, and even brains without any scarring. Professor Stephane Roy of University of Montreal explained to Scientific American:

You can cut the spinal cord, crush it, remove a segment, and it will regenerate. You can cut the limbs at any level—the wrist, the elbow, the upper arm—and it will regenerate, and it’s perfect. There is nothing missing, there’s no scarring on the skin at the site of amputation, every tissue is replaced. They can regenerate the same limb 50, 60, 100 times. And every time: perfect.

Scientists have also transplanted organs from one axolotl to another successfully.

11. Scientists are looking to harness that ability.

iStock

The Salk Institute for Biological Studies is studying how regeneration works in animals like axolotls, and released two studies in 2012 with their findings. The hope is that if we can fully understand regeneration, we can recreate the phenomenon in human beings.

Unfortunately, results so far have shown that the process might be even more complicated than expected. The scientists worry that humans might not even have the necessary genes to successfully regenerate. But there's a silver lining: While regrowing limbs might not be on the table, future studies can shed some light on smaller healing techniques.

“It is important to understand how regeneration works at a molecular level in a vertebrate that can regenerate as a first step," said the studies' senior author, Tony Hunter. "What we learn may eventually lead to new methods for treating human conditions, such as wound healing and regeneration of simple tissues."

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
travel
Pig Island: Sun, Sand, and Swine Await You in the Bahamas
iStock
iStock

When most people visit the Bahamas, they’re thinking about a vacation filled with sun, sand, and swimming—not swine. But you can get all four of those things if you visit Big Major Cay.

Big Major Cay, also now known as “Pig Island” for obvious reasons, is part of the Exuma Cays in the Bahamas. Exuma includes private islands owned by Johnny Depp, Tyler Perry, Faith Hill and Tim McGraw, and David Copperfield. Despite all of the local star power, the real attraction seems to be the family of feral pigs that has established Big Major Cay as their own. It’s hard to say how many are there—some reports say it’s a family of eight, while others say the numbers are up to 40. However big the band of roaming pigs is, none of them are shy: Their chief means of survival seems to be to swim right up to boats and beg for food, which the charmed tourists are happy to provide (although there are guidelines about the best way of feeding the pigs).

No one knows exactly how the pigs got there, but there are plenty of theories. Among them: 1) A nearby resort purposely released them more than a decade ago, hoping to attract tourists. 2) Sailors dropped them off on the island, intending to dine on pork once they were able to dock for a longer of period of time. For one reason or another, the sailors never returned. 3) They’re descendants of domesticated pigs from a nearby island. When residents complained about the original domesticated pigs, their owners solved the problem by dropping them off at Big Major Cay, which was uninhabited. 4) The pigs survived a shipwreck. The ship’s passengers did not.

The purposeful tourist trap theory is probably the least likely—VICE reports that the James Bond movie Thunderball was shot on a neighboring island in the 1960s, and the swimming swine were there then.

Though multiple articles reference how “adorable” the pigs are, don’t be fooled. One captain warns, “They’ll eat anything and everything—including fingers.”

Here they are in action in a video from National Geographic:

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Christine Colby
arrow
job secrets
13 Secrets From the Ravenmaster at the Tower of London
Christine Colby
Christine Colby

Christopher Skaife is a Yeoman Warder at the Tower of London, an ancient fortress that has been used as a jail, royal residence, and more. There are 37 Yeoman Warders, popularly known as Beefeaters, but Skaife has what might be the coolest title of them all: He is the Ravenmaster. His job is to maintain the health and safety of the flock of ravens (also called an “unkindness” or a “conspiracy”) that live within the Tower walls. According to a foreboding legend with many variations, if there aren’t at least six ravens living within the Tower, both the Tower and the monarchy will fall. (No pressure, Chris!)

Skaife has worked at the Tower for 11 years, and has many stories to tell. Recently, Mental Floss visited him to learn more about his life in service of the ravens.

1. MILITARY SERVICE IS REQUIRED.

All Yeoman Warders must have at least 22 years of military service to qualify for the position and have earned a good-conduct medal. Skaife served for 24 years—he was a machine-gun specialist and is an expert in survival and interrogation resistance. He is also a qualified falconer.

Skaife started out as a regular Yeoman Warder who had no particular experience with birds. The Ravenmaster at the time "saw something in him," Skaife says, and introduced him to the ravens, who apparently liked him—and the rest is history. He did, however, have to complete a five-year apprenticeship with the previous Ravenmaster.

2. HE LIVES ON-SITE.

The Tower of London photographed at night
Christine Colby

As tradition going back 700 years, all Yeoman Warders and their families live within the Tower walls. Right now about 150 people, including a doctor and a chaplain, claim the Tower of London as their home address.

3. BUT HE’S HAD TO MOVE.

Skaife used to live next to the Bloody Tower, but had to move to a different apartment within the grounds because his first one was “too haunted.” He doesn’t really believe in ghosts, he says, but does put stock in “echoes of the past.” He once spoke to a little girl who was sitting near the raven cages, and when he turned around, she had disappeared. He also claims that things in his apartment inexplicably move around, particularly Christmas-related items.

4. THE RAVENS ENJOY SOME UNUSUAL SNACKS.

The Ravenmaster at the Tower of London bending down to feed one of his ravens
Christine Colby

The birds are fed nuts, berries, fruit, mice, rats, chicken, and blood-soaked biscuits. (“And what they nick off the tourists,” Skaife says.) He has also seen a raven attack and kill a pigeon in three minutes.

5. THEY GET A LULLABY.

Each evening, Skaife whistles a special tone to call the ravens to bed—they’re tucked into spacious, airy cages to protect them from predators such as foxes.

6. THERE’S A DIVA.

One of the ravens doesn’t join the others in their nighttime lodgings. Merlina, the star raven, is a bit friendlier to humans but doesn’t get on with the rest of the birds. She has her own private box inside the Queen’s House, which she reaches by climbing a tiny ladder.

7. ONE OF THEM HAS EARNED THE NICKNAME “THE BLACK WIDOW.”

Ravens normally pair off for life, but one of the birds at the Tower, Munin, has managed to get her first two mates killed. With both, she lured them high atop the White Tower, higher than they were capable of flying down from, since their wings are kept trimmed. Husband #1 fell to his death. The second one had better luck coasting down on his wings, but went too far and fell into the Thames, where he drowned. Munin is now partnered with a much younger male.

8. THERE IS A SECRET PUB INSIDE THE TOWER.

Only the Yeoman Warders, their families, and invited guests can go inside a secret pub on the Tower grounds. Naturally, the Yeoman Warder’s Club offers Beefeater Bitter beer and Beefeater gin. It’s lavishly decorated in police and military memorabilia, such as patches from U.S. police departments. There is also an area by the bar where a section of the wall has been dug into and encased in glass, showing items found in an archaeological excavation of the moat, such as soldiers’ discarded clay pipes, a cannonball, and some mouse skeletons.

9. … AND A SECRET HAND.

The Byward Tower, which was built in the 13th century by King Henry III, is now used as the main entrance to the Tower for visitors. It has a secret glass brick set into the wall that most people don’t notice. When you peer inside, you’ll see it contains a human hand (presumably fake). It was put in there at some point as a bit of a joke to scare children, but ended up being walled in from the other side, so is now in there permanently.

10. HE HAS A SIDE PROJECT.

Skaife considers himself primarily a storyteller, and loves sharing tales of what he calls “Victorian melodrama.” In addition to his work at the Tower, he also runs Grave Matters, a Facebook page and a blog, as a collaboration with medical historian and writer Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris. Together they post about the history of executions, torture, and punishment.

11. THE TOWER IS MUPPET-FAMOUS.

2013’s Muppets Most Wanted was the first major film to shoot inside the Tower walls. At the Yeoman Warder’s Club, you can still sit in the same booth the Muppets occupied while they were in the pub.

12. IF YOU VISIT, KEEP AN EYE ON YOUR MONEY.

Ravens are very clever and known for stealing things from tourists, especially coins. They will strut around with the coin in their beak and then bury it, while trying to hide the site from the other birds.

13. … AND ON YOUR EYES.

Skaife, who’s covered in scars from raven bites, says, “They don’t like humans at all unless they’re dying or dead. Although they do love eyes.” He once had a Twitter follower, who is an organ donor, offer his eyes to the ravens after his death. Skaife declined.

This story first ran in 2015.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios