Sunday, November 11, 2007

cascada post 23

Axolotl in Cruz Blanca

Recently I have been suffering from a severe case of blogblockitis which is an intransigent form of the more transient malady known as blogblock. One of my favorite blogs recently passed through the final solution and on to the other side. There was a certain beatic way in which it happened and I have to admit to a smidgen of jealousy. But, for unknown reasons, I trudge along still on this side.

If you are wondering what the title refers to, at least in my imagination, were you to speak the title without benefit of visual cues, you might misapprehend it as "accidentally in Cruz Blanca". Of course, if you are axolotl-aware you probably wouldn't. But just supposing that you did you wouldn't be entirely wrong: I was in Cruz Blanca twice a few years ago without even knowing it. Back then I thought it was all part of Matlalpa. In fact, when I mentioned to Kyoka, the young Japanese woman who has the strange fortune to work in Matlalapa, that the road ended in Matlalapa and that the only way to get to Cruz Blanca was to walk from there, she looked at me curiously but was far too polite to set me straight.

If now you are about to Google "Cruz Blanca", let me save you some trouble. Cruz Blanca is the name of at least five different towns in Mexico, and two are in the state of Veracruz. Is the true cross white? Our Cruz Blanca sits in the foothills of the nearly 14000 foot volcano, Cofre de Perote. It is just a little above Matlalapa which in turn is above Xico Viejo, whose indigenous precursor was, many believe, passed through by Cortes with his troops nearly 500 years ago. You can find this Cruz Blanca in Google Earth if you enter in this latitude and longitude: 19 28.424, -97 05.183. My GPS reports the elevation as 7290 feet.

Here is a picture from a little higher up looking back at Cruz Blanca (lower right) and Matlalapa (left side). If you follow the road back to the right until it seems to disappear you can see a few houses, which mark the upper limit of the small town Xico Viejo.

Cruz Blanca (right) and Matlalapa (left)

There is a small church at Cruz Blanca which honors 'San Isidro'. Here is its picture:

Iglesia 'San Isidro' at Cruz Blanca

The temporary structure on large bamboo stilts spanning the door is called an 'arco' and with much fanfare is marched to and erected at the church on the patron saint day of the town. This happens at most Catholic churches at least in this part of Mexico and is always a big festival.

Appropriately there is a white cross at Cruz Blanca. Here it is:

Cruz blanca a Cruz Blanca

Enigmatically, perhaps, there is also an axolotl at Cruz Blanca. And what is an axolotl? Well, when they are mature they are about nine inches long and look like this:

Axolotls as drawn by Jitka Horne

(I have to confess that I glommed this wonderful drawing from some no longer remembered internet publication. Jitka, if you or your publisher object please contact me). And here then is the much larger axolotl at Cruz Blanca, still under construction:

Axolotl (building far right) at Cruz Blanca

I'm afraid you can't see its tail, just its head, eyes, and mouth. So why are they building such a strange structure at Cruz Blanca? To understand you must know a little more of axolotls, which are unusual and interesting creatures.

Axolotl (in Spanish ajolote) is the common name for the species Ambystoma mexicanum, a kind of neotenic salamander. The 'mexicanum' part of the name derives from 'Mexico' because this animal only existed in Lake Xochimilco and Lake Chalco in the highlands of Mexico surrounding Teotihuacan (city of the gods) and just to its south the town of Xochimilco (city of flowers--from Nahuatl xóchitl = flower; milli = cultivated field, co = place). These lakes were full of axolotls which were a delicious and important food for the people of this region. These cities are ancient and are thought to have originated around 200 years before Christ, and by the 4th century (about the time Ethiopia was Christianised) Teotihuacan was the sixth largest city in the world.

Now of course the region is the giant megalopolis known as Mexico City and the lakes have long since been drained or dried up with only vestiges remaining as a few canals at
Xochimilco, in the southern part of Mexico City. As late as 1911 axolotls were still common in the markets of Mexico City. Whether they are still eaten and still available in markets I don't know, but I am skeptical because axolotls in the wild are now endangered.

As you probably know, each of our cells contains the complete genetic information of our bodies and so, in a sense, each cell contains a plan which if followed would could create a clone of ourselves. Unfortunately however it is only the youthful embryonic stem cells which can actually develop into a full clone, or into various parts of us, say a hand or a heart or skin depending on the environment that cues them. This is why stem cell research is so important, because only the stem cells are (as it is called) pluripotent.

Not so with the axolotl, for not only is it neotenic, that is it never metamorphoses like most salamanders into an adult form, but rather its youthful form including external gills continues into reproductive adulthood and throughout its life; but also its mature cells are pluripotent. Exactly why this is so is not well understood, but this attribute allows the salamander to regenerate lost limbs and other parts of its body.

These, then are the reasons that the axolotl is today important as a research animal in both regenerative medicine and stem cell research.

As a former (and maybe future) pool player I couldn't resist sharing the above diagram, grabbed from somewhere in the vast miasma of the Internet.

So now the reasons for the axolotl at Cruz Blanca emerge: axolotls will be raised for use in medical and pharmaceutical research. I am indebted to Alberto, friend and native speaker of Spanish, for talking to the local people at Cruz Blanca and explaining to me what they said. However, any errors here are mine since this posting is partly suppositional.
One small question. The great naturalist Alexander von Humboldt, for whom I have great regard, reported, as a result of his own exporations around 1803 or 1804, that the axolotl existed in other high altitude Mexican lakes besides the two mentioned above near Mexico City.

Alexander von Humboldt, as painted by Joseph Stieler, 1843

This is apparently not true today and I have not seen any confirming evidence that the salamanders reported by Humboldt in other lakes were in fact axolotls. If you can shed any light on this please comment or contact me.

Finally, on a personal note, I have had a persistent cough for nearly a month now. Happily I can report that a doctor in Xalapa has determined that it is not a contagious malady, and that following his prescriptions I am much better now. Still, though not suggested by my doctor, I cannot help but wonder whether this product,

which I have not yet been able to obtain, might have helped.


Anonymous said...

Interesting post...glad your blogblock has lifted. Also glad your cough is better. I printed Axolotls, and Langston and Giddy are the only two kids on the block with axolotl coloring pages (their request).

JB said...

Hey, neat Paul. Hi to Langston and Giddy. I hope they enjoy their axolotl coloring!