06 04/06/2018

How a UK zoo, a Mexican university and an order of NUNS plan to save one of the world’s rarest amphibians

  • New international breeding network to help save critically endangered Mexican salamanders from extinction
  • Amphibian experts from Chester Zoo and the Michoacána University of Mexico team up to save Lake Pátzcuaro salamanders
  • Species is one of the world’s rarest amphibians with fewer than 100 estimated to remain in the wild
  • Mexican nuns join efforts to boost salamander numbers
  • Unusual collaborative form long-term plan to reintroduce animals back into the wild

An unlikely collaborative has joined forces to save one of the world’s rarest amphibians from extinction.

Chester Zoo in the UK, the Michoacana University of Mexico, a Mexican government fisheries centre and a group of Mexican nuns, have come together to develop a breeding programme for the Lake Pátzcuaro salamander and ensure the continued survival of the critically endangered species.

It is the first time a breeding 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

A rare Lake Pátzcuaro salamander – one of the world’s rarest amphibians – 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.

Chester Zoo is 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.

And a further, particularly genetically important colony 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 a clutch of the salamanders for more than 150 years.

Scientists and nuns pictured in Mexico

Traditionally, the nuns and people living in the local communities, harvested the salamanders from Lake Pátzcuaro - the only place in the world in which they were once commonly found - and used them to create a special cough medicine.

However, a combination of introduced exotic fish, destruction of forest which has altered the shoreline of the lake, and over-exploitation as a local dish, has pushed them 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 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 animals are harvested for medicinal purposes (locals have a belief that they are a cure for respiratory problems), as well as food
  • 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

Notes to editors
  • Chester Zoo (www.chesterzoo.org) is a registered conservation and education charity that supports projects around the world and closer to home in Cheshire. Welcoming 1.9 million visitors a year, it is the most visited zoo in the UK; home to over 21,000 animals and more than 500 different species, many of which are endangered in the wild
  • Chester Zoo is the UK’s most visited tourist attraction outside London, according to the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions (ALVA)
  • Through its wildlife conservation campaign, Act for Wildlife, the zoo is helping to save highly threatened species around the world from extinction. Find out more at www.actforwildlife.org.uk
  • Social networks: www.facebook.com/chesterzoo1 and @chesterzoo