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Event 04/06/2018

Chester Zoo is helping to save Rare Mexican salamanders

The zoo is teaming up with a Mexican university and a group of nuns to save one of the world’s rarest amphibians!

The zoo has teamed up with the Michoacana University of Mexico, a Mexican government fisheries centre and a group of Mexican nuns to develop a breeding programme for the Lake Pátzcuaro salamander and ensure the continued survival of this critically endangered species!

It is the first time a network has been established for the Mexican salamanders, or ‘achoques’ as they are locally known, and researchers hope to quickly establish a genetically viable population.

Rare Mexican salamander in tank at Chester Zoo

The salamanders once thrived in Lake Pátzcuaro, Mexico’s third largest lake, but are now listed as critically endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The species is of great importance to the locals who have lived alongside it for hundreds of years but the latest research has led to fears that fewer than 100 individuals may remain.

However, the new breeding plan is now aiming to boost numbers and, in time, re-energise the wild population.

The zoo is now home to six breeding pairs of the salamander, with a further 30 adults at the Michoacana University of Mexico and at a Mexican government fisheries centre, both located in the city of Morelia in south-west Mexico.

This amazing amphibian is also found at a monastery in the small Mexican town of Pátzcuaro, which is home to 23 nuns. The Sisters of the Monastery of the Dominican of Order have been caring for the salamanders for more than 150 years!

Scientists and nuns pictured in Mexico

A combination of introduced exotic fish and destruction of forest which has altered the shoreline of the lake has pushed these salamanders to the brink of extinction, forcing the nuns to breed the salamanders in their convent to keep alive both the species and their traditions. Experts believe the population being kept by the nuns will play a key role in any future reintroduction back into the wild.

Dr Gerardo Garcia, the zoo’s Curator of Lower Vertebrates and Invertebrates, said:

The Lake Pátzcuaro salamander is a very unusual species that is now perilously close to the edge of existence and requires immediate action if we are to establish more numbers and save them.

After visiting Mexico in 2014, we had the unique opportunity to meet the nuns who are keeping the species in their monastery and we now believe that the population they are looking after is one of the most genetically viable populations in the world.

The nuns deserve enormous credit in keeping this species alive. Now, in partnership with the Sisters, a European network of zoos and the University of Michoacán in Mexico, we are fighting to breed a thriving population for eventual reintroduction back into the wild.
Conservationists have already begun projects to determine the status of the salamander population remaining in the lake, assess water quality, the availability of prey items, monitor potential health issues and encourage communities surrounding the lake to join the efforts to bring back the species. 

Professor Omar Dominguez, from the Michoacána University of Mexico, added:

This wonderful partnership between international zoos, ourselves and local communities in Mexico is giving the salamanders new hope in its fight for survival. Local people have joined the breeding network; local fishermen are part of the research efforts on the lake; villagers are engaging in conversation about the importance of thriving aquatic wildlife – and now the international conservation community is joining the bid to save this magnificent species.

The species is a unique type of salamander, as it spends its whole life in its larval form and never achieves metamorphosis – the process where an animal physically develops shortly after birth or hatching – and instead of evolving and migrating to land, it keeps its gills and lives in fresh water.

Salamander being weighed

Although not a lot is known about the species, they can grow to be a foot long and use their legs to drag themselves along the bottom of the lake whilst feeding on aquatic insects, small fish and crustaceans.

Lake Pátzcuaro salamander fast facts:

  • Scientific name: Ambystoma dumerilii
  • The surviving wild population is very small. Although populations are difficult to assess, recent surveys covering almost all of its known distribution range have usually captured fewer than 100 individuals
  • The species does not metamorphose and lives permanently in water
  • Up to 20 tonnes of the ‘achoques’, by which they are known locally, were taken from the lake in as recently as the 1980s. But by the early 1990s, hardly any remained
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