Blog 15: The ajolote, your favorite ambystomatid

February 2, 2011

 Yesterday I spent 8 hours at the computer, trying to disentangle the scores of relatives of Catalina Enríquez living in and around Mexico City in the 1580s. All but two of the women are named either Clara or Catalina; their family names vary apparently in response to fits of whimsy. The men favor Jorge and Manuel, and in speaking to the inquisitors they tend to use terms like uncle, niece, and cousin inconsistently. They all seem to be synonyms for “family.” About a third of these folks, when pressed (as they were, which is how I know about them), adopted aliases: Enríquez, González, and Rodríguez were favorites. After all, almost everybody else used one of those names too.

So, beginning to stammer into my ninth cup of coffee and my eyes rolling in their sockets, I saved, backed up, and unplugged. Laced on my boots, draped my binoculars around my neck, stuck my bird-book in my shoulder bag, donned my ‘Bug-off’ floppy hat, and started up cobbled road that climbs to the plateau. Halfway up I spotted a warbler flitting in the thorn bushes that border the pine forest. After ten minutes of swerving my binocs from side to side as the warbler, about the size of a recent-model I-pod, darted from leaf clump to brush pile, I got a momentarily clear view: a crescent-chested warbler, my second ever. As I tried to memorize its faint whistling chirp, a horn blared behind me. I jumped; the warbler vanished. Cars rarely come up this hill (it’s a 20% grade, and cobbled), but here was Miguel’s white Dodge van. Miguel is a doctor friend who lived many years in Greeley, has a small house in Zirahuén near the lakefront, and is an enthusiast about just about everything. He braked, swung open the door, and motioned me to get in.

“There’s a fire! At George and Deborah’s house! I got a call. Come on.”

We jounce to the top of the hill, cut a wake through the inch-thick dust that coats the dirt road along the flat, and head up into the pinewoods. We see smoke rising in a dense cloud over the pines, fifty meters or so to the east of George and Deborah’s house that perches high over a corn field to the left of our road. As we reach the woods we can make out a few flames just above ground level. Closer still, we can see embers smoldering in the dense mat of pine needles on the floor of the forest, emitting what look to be hundreds of geysers of thick smoke into the air. Eight figures, shrouded with smoke, are working to trench the perimeter and shovel dirt onto the hotspots. Breughel would have pulled out his sketchbook.

Miguel parks at the foot of George’s drive. I stash my bag—binoculars, birdbook, and camera— on the floor of the van and grab one of the shovels that Miguel has cleverly remembered to bring. We sprint up the hill  (well, Miguel sprints; I trudge) and join the crew shoveling dirt onto the tongues of flame that keep breaking out. In a few minutes we work our way up to where George is attempting to smother the burning stump of a small pine tree.

“Miguel, David, thanks for coming. How did you …?

“Steven called me,” Miguel says. “Deborah must have called him.” He waves to Steven, who is working at the far side of the smoke field, trenching to keep the fire from reaching the dry brush that marks the line separating George’s property from his neighbor’s.


“And those men?” With his head Miguel indicates the four young men shoveling along side Steven.

“Andrés, and three of his friends,” George clarifies. Andrés and his wife and kids live with Steven a few kilometers east near the five houses that constitute the village of Palma

. Steven is trying to farm—so far, unsuccessfully—and, in return for room and board for his family, Andrés helps him out. Miguel knows him from before, and waves.

George looks quizzically at me, and Miguel explains. “I met David on the way up. Hiking.”

“How did it start?” I ask.

“Our yard man was burning some trash over by the edge of the woods. I guess he thought it was out when he went home. But then the wind came up . . . “

Deborah pants up, shovel in hand, her overalls soot-stained, her face nearly as red as her hair from the exertion.

“I called again, but no one picked up the phone. Either there’s no one at the fire house, or they’re already on their way, or something else has come up.”

“When Ernesto had his fire two months ago, they didn’t come either,” George says. “But somebody must have passed the word to Quiroga, because their bomberos came in a pickup truck.” Quiroga is 50 kilometers away, at the north end of Lake Pátzcuaro.

Chitchat ended, we return to the fire. We shovel dirt and bash spurts of flame with the blades of our shovels. In a half hour or so it is pretty clear that the worst is over. An area about double the size of a baseball infield has been charred, and only a few stumps and piles of brush are still showing flame. The problem is the several-inch-deep thatch of pine needles that covers the forest floor. Even when the surface is gray, live embers lurk underneath, sporadically spurting up plumes of smoke. We shovel dirt at the most active spots, and when we stop to mop our brows, thinking we have tamed the beast, thirty new plumes bring us back to reality.

Andrés comes over. “Unless it rains, this will smolder for three or four days.” It’s February 1, and the rainy season begins in April. We’ve been here two months and haven’t seen a drop.

“If we finish the trench, scrape back the pine needles on both sides of it, we ought to be able to leave it.”

Andrés speaks quietly and with undisputable authority. He is younger than any of the rest of us by at least three decades, and it’s clear that Steven has contracted him and his friends to work the fire. But there is nothing deferential about his manner. He is the only one of us who was raised in these forests. Burning is a way of life in rural Michoacán: burning trash in a region with few land fills; burning to reduce corn stubble to ash before plowing for next year’s planting; burning after lumbering to clear land for avocados. It’s clear to all of us that Andrés knows what he’s talking about.

We turn back to the perimeter trench, widening it and scooping back the forest detritus from its edges. I scoop up a shovelful of dirt, fling it at some jets of smoke, and look down to see where to take the next scoopful. And there is a tail, a waxy spotted tail, about four inches long, sticking out of the dirt. It moves, coiling back on itself. I dig under it, gingerly, and with my shovel lift it, and the remainder of the creature to which it is attached, into the air.

“Hey,” I yell in Spanish. “Do any of you know anything about the local strange critters?”

I should note that most all of this talk is in Spanish, some bits more fluent than others, except when two ex-pats are talking alone together, when it’s in English. George and Deborah are Canadian; Steven and I are American; Miguel is Mexican, but big city, and he’s lived half his life in the States. The others are equally bilingual , but in Spanish and Purhépecha. So Spanish is the common tongue.

I carry the creature over to the road and set it down on the dirt. It stretches out its tail, then curls it again, slowly turns its head from one side to the other, chooses a path, takes two tentative steps, chooses another path, and then stops. Whether it is frightened, exhausted, or merely disinclined to entertain us, I can’t tell.

“Anybody know what it is?” I look round the gathered circle.

“It looks like a lagarto, a lizard of some sort.”

“I think it’s an ajolote,” one of Andrés’s friends ventures.

An ajolote! An axolotl. That strangest and rarest of Mexican … whatever it is. That starts out living in water as a translucent little dragon, with wings and gills and rubbery spikes, and then —sometimes—metamorphoses into a land lizard. And is sometimes male, and sometimes female, and changes pretty much at will. That collection of bizarre trivia being all that my smoke-clogged brain can dredge up at the moment.

“Don’t let it bite you,” another of Andrés’s crew warns. They clamp on you, and they burrow inside, and they lay their eggs or whatever and then one day the ajolotes pour out of you.”

That information is not part of my trivia set, and I find it highly improbable, more Aliens 13 than zoological science. But then, come to think of it, it’s not more improbable than the bits that I remembered. Anyway, I sprint down to Miguel’s car for my camera, and then trudge back up the hill to the crowd gathered around th

e ajolote, snapping pictures of it with their cell phones. Once I have caught my breath, I take a few too, and, for good measure, one of the smoking fire field.

Then, hefting our shovels, with the work crew paid, we all go to George and Deborah’s house for lemonade (me) and whiskey or tequila (everybody else) and two hours of delightful conversation, keeping one communal eye on the puffing peat and another on the clouds over Lake Zirahuen set ablaze by the sinking sun.


Ah, yes, the ajolotes. An hour on google when I got home turned up information like this:

“The Axolotl and Tige

r salamander are mole salamanders, or ambystomatids, a group of exclusively American salamanders consisting of 33 or so species (we previously looked briefly at them in the second caudate article). The Tiger salamander - if recognised as a single species (read on) - is supposedly distributed over virtually the whole of continental North America, comprising between five and seven subspecies. Closely related to the Tiger salamander are an addition 13 or so species, all of which are unique to Mexico, and the Tiger salamander and its Mexican relatives are grouped together as the ‘tiger salamander complex’ on the basis of morphological and genetic data.”


Reading further, I learned that

“Tiger salamanders are quite different to aquatic axolotls, or tiger salamander larvae. Firstly, their limbs become more muscular in order to support their bodies on land. … Perhaps most noticeably, they absorb their gills and their lungs develop in capacity to the extent that they can breathe air directly from the atmosphere. Their eyes bulge out and they develop eyelids. Their body shape also changes - for example, the head becomes more rounded… Their skin changes in quite a number of ways too: it becomes less permeable to water than an aquatic axolotl's skin, so that it can survive in the air without drying out quickly; the skin becomes firmer and thicker and it becomes more layered than the skin of an aquatic axolotl, and coupled with this, the colour usually changes quite dramatically… Adults are rarely seen in the open and often live in burrows that are usually 2 feet from the surface.”


There’s much more, with pictures, on line. Bottom line: scientists are even more puzzled by the ajolote’s weird ways than we were.