Meet the axolotl. It’s a type of aquatic salamander, endemic only to the nearly-extinct Lake Chalco underneath Mexico City, and the nearly-extinct Lake Xochimilco. As you can imagine, it is nearly extinct in the wild. The species is mainly bred as pets, for scientific experiments, and for food. (It was a staple of the Aztecs, and remains so today, fried by street vendors.)

In 1863, a vivarium with 6 axolotls was sent to the famed biologist Auguste Duméril in Paris. The naturalist was surprised when he opened the vivarium and, instead of 6 small white aquatic salamanders with external gills, found 6 large dark-skinned terrestrial salamanders heretofore unknown to science. What happened? As the water evaporated on the voyage, the environmental changes triggered a hormone in the axolotls that made them transform from their white, larval phase into their dark adult phase, something they almost never do in the wild. In short, axolotls are neotenic: they reach sexual maturity and live out their entire lives retaining the features of their juvenile selves.

The study of neotenism was later taken up by an English scientist named Julian Huxley, whose brother, Aldous Huxley, author of Brave New World, took interest in the axolotl experiments, and conjectured that human beings are really the neotenic versions of the great apes. Far from the idea that apes are somehow less evolved, it stands to reason that, with our sparse body hair, flattened faces, and large heads, homo sapiens is actually a matured version of a primate fetus. Given enough time, Huxley said, or the right change in environment, or even just the right hormones, we humans could physically transition to our “adult” stage, which might look distinctly more gorilla-esque.

As I wait here for adulthood and a proper career to come to me in this unkempt university-area bachelor pad of mine, I’ve been considering the axolotl. There is something artistic, inspired, and responsible about to happen in me, given the right conditions. I will find myself turned inside-out, shedding what is unnecessary and soft and childish, and becoming simultaneously more genius and more ape-like. Maybe someday we all will.


About quantumbiologist

Christian Drake, AKA The Quantum Biologist, is a naturalist and poet formerly of Albuquerque, NM and currently living deep in the backwoods of the Connecticut Berkshires. He has worked in aquariums and planetariums, national parks and urban forests. When not birding or turning over rocks to find weird bugs, he enjoys rockabilly music, gourmet cooking, playing harmonica and writing dirty haiku. View all posts by quantumbiologist

3 responses to “Axolotl

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