Pollution and other man-made ills take a heavy toll on the Mexican axolotl, a rare salamander popular among the Aztecs at the time.
Its population in the wild has dropped by around 99% in the past three decades, an expert has said. Yet the creature’s popularity has never been higher, propelled by the same modern age that is chasing it towards extinction.
A global audience of half a billion gamers have come to know the axolotl, which is largely concentrated in the canals around Mexico City and looks like little dragons with goofy grins. The “Fortnite” video game released axolotl characters in 2020, and “Minecraft” followed suit last summer.
a platform with millions of user-created games, has dozens of axolotl-centric games, including “Axolotl Tycoon” and “Axolotl Paradise”. Axolotls appear in “Adopt Me!”, one of the most played games on Roblox.
The whole exhibit spawned axolotl memes, YouTube videos, coloring books, and non-fungible tokens. Build-A-Bear Workshop Inc.
added an axolotl doll to their stores. The Bank of Mexico has put an axolotl on the side of the country’s new 50-peso bill, and an axolotl museum has opened in Mexico City.
Dylan Stouffer, like many other young players, wanted a real one. “I just got obsessed with them,” said the 8-year-old, who lives in Johnstown, Pennsylvania.
Pet store owners say demand for axolotls has increased and stores are struggling to keep endangered species in stock.
Dylan had three, which he named Fireball, SpongeBob, and Toothless. His mother, Nicole Baughman, is equally in love. She has an axolotl t-shirt, a doll and a blanket. She also runs a TikTok account dedicated to educating new axolotl owners. “A lot of people think they’re like goldfish, and you just throw them in a tank,” Ms Baughman said.
Care and feeding are more complicated in real life than on screen. Axolotls can grow to about a foot in length and require aquariums with dechlorinated tap water. For many children, the reservoirs are too deep to access. This often leaves parents serving meals with tongs and scooping up droppings with turkey basters.
Amy Blum, of Monroe, Wisconsin, cares for Louis, an axolotl his mother bought for Elijah, Ms Blum’s 8-year-old gamer son. “It took some getting used to the diet,” she said. “I don’t exactly like cutting worms.”
Axolotl should be kept cool. Marcia and Janine Kemp of Gilbert, Arizona, saved hundreds of dollars on an aquarium chiller by instead keeping frozen water bottles in a tank to chill Puddles, the axolotl they got for their son 9 years old. The family has four dogs, two cats, a gecko, a bird, a turtle and several fish. Puddles require the most effort, Ms Kemp said. “I didn’t think we realized how intense it was going to be.”
Dallas axolotl breeder and seller Jake Pak worries that young buyers will be disappointed that their new pets won’t perform the same tricks as the digital variety, like wearing sports shirts and walking on two feet.
Jason Wilson said a neighbor checking out his home near Edmond, Okla., while he and his family were away, thought she had stumbled upon a tragedy. The neighbor saw the two Wilson family axolotls motionless in their tank.
“She called me in a panic,” Mr Wilson said. He explained to the neighbor that except for meal times, “they were just hanging around.”
Owning an Axolotl is a commitment. They can live 15 years. “A lot of kids who buy these axolotls will take them to college,” Pak said.
That is, the axolotls that survive. Although they have the remarkable ability to regrow a lost limb, they are not immune to cannibalism.
Lauren Silverman and her husband recently bought two for their 9-year-old son, Sam. The boy named them Maxolotl and Toothless. The Silvermans, who live in a suburb of Auckland, New Zealand, added Snowy to their axolotl tank a few months later.
Within days, Toothless, named after a popular movie dragon, swallowed Snowy whole, “like a gummy bear”, Ms Silverman said. “You could see the outline of Snowy in Toothless.”
Maxolotl then fell prey. Toothless bit the tail and a limb of his tank mate.
Axolotlmania wouldn’t have broken out if they weren’t so adorable, according to Boston-based anthropologist Cynthia Miller. “We have hard-wired reactions to cute things,” she said. “They trigger endorphins, giving us feelings of happiness.”
The good feelings go back to the Aztecs, who named the amphibian after Xolotl, the god of monsters. The axolotl in English is pronounced ak-suh-lot-ul. They are ajolote in Spanish and are pronounced ah-ho-lo-te. In their native Nahuatl it comes close to ah-show-lotl.
“The Aztecs were crazy about them,” said Matias Vera-Cruz Dutrénit, general manager of a collective in Mexico City that owns a brewery with axolotl beer labels.
Breeders and buyers say the world’s newfound interest in axolotls could save them from extinction. Urbanization, water pollution and invasive predators in their natural habitat have reduced their density from about 6,000 per square kilometer in the 1990s to less than 36 per square kilometer today, Luis Zambrano said, biologist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.
A booming population of pet axolotls isn’t an ideal solution, said Pamela Valencia, founder of Mexico City’s new axolotl museum.
“Axolotls are wild animals,” she said. “Having one as a pet is like keeping a jaguar in your backyard.”
Georgina Molina didn’t know what she was looking at when her 8-year-old son, Cairo Rios, sent her a photo of an axolotl a few months ago. He had seen them in “Minecraft” and wanted his own.
A brown axolotl named Axel now occupies a 40 gallon tank in the kitchen of the family home in Cape Coral, Florida. Cairo loves his company. “An actual axolotl is better than the video game version,” he said.
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