We think of convents as places of order and refuge: That’s exactly why the Lake Pátzcuaro salamander is so lucky to have an order of Dominican Sisters offer them continued survival through a captive breeding program. It’s an unlikely place, a lakeside town in Mexico where the native Purépecha have lived since long before the Europeans arrived – and an unlikely occupation for the Dominican sisters
Some two dozen nuns in the Order, with Sister Ofelia Morales Francisco in the lead, breed and care for these extremely rare salamanders –popularly known as achoques, or Ambystroma dumerilii by scientists—in their convent, next door to a Basilica built in the 1500s. The name achoque is from the Purépecha word achójki — possibly derived from the word for mud.
They are endemic to Lake Pátzcuaro , and but for the Sisters, the achoques would probably be extinct in the wild. About 300 representing robust genetic diversity of the critically endangered species, live and are cared for in aquarium cases and enamel bathtubs inside the convent.
The Lake itself and population increases over time are the major reason for their decline. Water quality is poor due to several factors: untreated sewage pours directly into the lake, deforestation allows silt and pollution to be carried into the lake, and introduced species (largemouth bass and carp) eat the achoques’ eggs and larvae. Native people ate achoques for generations and attributed mystical powers to a cough syrup made from their skin. As the achoques’s population declines in the Lake, so has their genetic diversity.
What’s so important about saving the achoques?
They’re large, as salamanders go, growing up to a foot in length. They spend their entire adult lives underwater. They have a beautiful mane of external gills that allows them to breathe (other salamanders’ aquatic larvae switch from external gills as adults) Their skin, the color of mustard and granular in texture, is especially prized as the source for making jarabe, a syrup that is used to treat coughs and bronchial conditions.
You could call this a symbiotic relationship: The Sisters are keeping up a healthy, active colony, and using skin scrapings to make a cough syrup whose recipe is only known to them! (And they’ve been making syrup for nearly a century!) The product is popular and sold in nearby markets.
“It’s about protecting a species from nature,” says Sister Ofelia. “If we don’t work to take care of it, to protect it, it will disappear from creation.
Amphibian experts from Chester Zoo (England) and the Michoacána University of Mexico are now part of the mix, to survey the genetic heritage of the captive colony and make sure it has healthy diversity.
“That is why we consider that the nuns will be very vital in the future,” said Gerardo Garcia, a curator and expert on endangered species at the Chester Zoo in England. Chester Zoo story with 9 minute video
Professor Andrew Johnson, from the University of Nottingham, notes the importance of the species both historically and in terms of study. “These things are so important and interesting because they represent the very first vertebrates to move onto land,” he told the BBC. “Most people who use axolotls (cousins of the achoques) study them because of their ability to regenerate and it’s remarkable. An axolotl can regenerate almost anything, it can regenerate its brain, it can regenerate its heart.”
Learn more. New York Times (in English)