The silhouette of a wild axolotl found in Manantlan Reserve
The myth surrounding the unique Mexican axolotl involves Xolotl, an Aztec god determined to escape his impending sacrifice.
Text and photo credit: Alejandro Prieto
Besides the great biological value of this species, there is a historical value: The axolotl had a special importance in the culture of the ancient Mexicans. The spirit of this animal was recognised by ancient cultures, which saw it as a being that defies death. In Aztec mythology, the axolotl (Nahuatl: atl, “water” and xolotl, “monster”, aquatic monster), is the aquatic equivalent of the god Xolotl, from which its name came.
Brother of Quetzalcoatl and monstrous because of the twin birth, Xolotl is associated with the idea of movement and life, according to the Legend of the Fifth Sun. Duality manifests itself in the transformations to which it resorts to avoid sacrifice. Bernardino de Sahagún, a Catholic missionary priest, tells that Xolotl refused death, fleeing the executioner by hiding in the cornfields, where he morphed into a corn plant with two stalks. When he was discovered, he ran again and took the form of a double maguey plant. Once again, the executioner found him and he escaped into the water, transforming into an axolotl. This was the last metamorphosis. Finally, the executioner caught Xolotl and killed him.
In Aztec culture, the axolotl is documented in several codices, among which is the Florentine Codex. The first scientific reference to the axolotl appears in a book of natural history from 1615. From then on, numerous works on the animal were published, but the scientific name was only given 200 years later.
The strange animal greatly impressed Alexander von Humboldt, a Prussian naturalist and explorer, who took two specimens from Mexico and brought them to Paris, giving them to the naturalist Georges Cuvier to study. He described with surprise the presence and persistence of the external gills on the sides of the head, and highlighted its anatomical resemblance to the salamander. Cuvier, true to the logic of comparative anatomy, concluded that the axolotl was no more than the larva of a large salamander. However, years later, in his famous classification of the animal kingdom, he was forced to classify it as a perennibranch, an amphibian that retains its gills throughout its life.
This is an excerpt from an article from Scuba Diver Issue 3/2018, which can be purchased here.
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