Experts from Chester Zoo have teamed up with an order of Mexican nuns in a bid to save one of the world’s rarest amphibians from extinction.
The zoo team and Michoacána University are working with Dominican Sisters based near Lake Pátzcuaro to develop a breeding programme for a local salamander which is critically endangered.
Lake Pátzcuaro is the only place in the world where a variety of axolotl – Mexican salamander – called the achoque can be found.
Professor Andrew Johnson, from the University of Nottingham, noted 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 study them because of their ability to regenerate. An axolotl can regenerate almost anything, it can regenerate its brain, its heart.”
However, the species is on the edge of extinction due to water pollution, invasive species and overfishing but 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 Michoacana University.
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, known as the Sisters of Immaculate Health, as well as the Sisters of the Sacred Salamander.
Traditionally the sisters, who have been caring for a clutch of the salamanders for more than 150 years, used them to make medicine which locals believe cures coughs asthma and anemia.
Sr Ofelia Morales Francisco told the BBC: “I feel they need our care and protection and that is exactly what we’re doing.”
Sr Ofelia explained that historically the monks closeby to Lake Pátzcuaro knew about the properties of the achoque as a food and as a natural medicine. “They started to make a syrup and this practice was passed on from generation to generation,” she added.
Gerardo Garcia, a conservationist at Chester Zoo, said the nuns’ use of the achoques to make the medicine has led to them becoming experts in breeding the species and has now paved the way to saving the rare amphibians from extinction.
“Their skills from all these years of expertise can help the species,” Mr Garcia told the BBC. “The role of the nuns is going to completely modify the game. They have a fantastic genetic pool of achoques and if we needed to bring new achoques back to the lake they will be a fantastic candidate to supply animals to bring them back to the wild.
“Participating in research with the nuns is quite unusual, it doesn’t matter where you come from or what you do in your life, at the end of the day we try to focus on conservation which is great,” he added.
To find out more see Chester Zoo at www.chesterzoo.org
Picture: Chester Zoo’s Gerardo Garcia and Adam Bland work with the nuns. (Chester Zoo).