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How do axolotls regrow parts of their bodies–including their brains?

A pink axolotl salamander stares at the camera from inside a tank. It's face is a cute smile and it's frilly external gills are visible.

In addition to having faces that look like a smiley emoticon, axolotls are as fascinating to scientific researchers as they are to kids because of their amazing ability to regenerate parts of their bodies, including their brains! In this episode we answer kids' questions about these curious salamanders with Dr. Randal Voss, a professor at the University of Kentucky. That lab alone has thousands of axolotls, but these creatures are critically endangered in the wild, where they live exclusively in the depleted and polluted waterways of Mexico City’s Lake Xochimilco. Questions we tackle in this episode: How do axolotls regrow parts of their brains? What did axolotls evolve from? Can axolotls survive out of water?

Download our learning guides: PDF | Google Slide| Transcript

  • Axolotls are adorable because they live their adult lives in a permanently juvenile state. In their evolution from their salamander ancestors they lost the ability to metamorphose (transform) into the land-based adult stage of most amphibians. Axolotls evolved from tiger salamanders, a family of salamanders that can be found all over North America.
  • Axolotls breathe through gills, the frilly things behind their heads. So they cannot survive out of the water for an extended time. They create a mucus to keep their skin moist. 
  • Axolotls live in the wild exclusively in the waterways of Lake Xochimilco in Mexico City. They also used to live in nearby Lake Chalco, but that lake was drained to make way for human development.
  • Wild axolotls are critically endangered because of habitat destruction. Work is underway to restore their habitat.
  • But there are hundreds of thousands of axolotls living in captivity. Many of them are used in scientific research. Ancestors of a population of axolotls taken from Mexico over a century ago are bred at the University of Kentucky for use in labs all over the country.
  • Axolotls can regenerate most parts of their body and scientists are studying how they do this so that we might learn how to some day regenerate human limbs.
Jane Lindholm is the host, executive producer and creator of But Why: A Podcast For Curious Kids. In addition to her work on our international kids show, she produces special projects for Vermont Public. Until March 2021, she was host and editor of the award-winning Vermont Public program Vermont Edition.
Melody is the Contributing Editor for But Why: A Podcast For Curious Kids and the co-author of two But Why books with Jane Lindholm.

But Why is a project of Vermont Public.

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