Tuesday, November 6, 2012

You axolotl questions! So here are some answers....

Wonderful Mad magazine!  In decades past, when I was juvenile (and hence, mature enough to understand Mad's subtleties), there were many references to the perplexing 'potrzebie' and the evocative axolotl.  We at one time thought these were typical Mad made-up-words, but it turned out that the first is from Polish (don't believe it?  Google it!), and the second really does exist.

Axolotls (their Aztec name) are a species of Mexican salamander that doesn't go through complete metamorphosis the way their closely related species cousins do.  In essence, they are permanent teenagers who never quite grow up.  They must be horrid annoyances to their parents, but otherwise seem to be quite successful and have been around for a long time.  But they do mate often (come to think of it, so do teenagers these days), and they've been the stuff of both legends and aquariums. 

Well, sadly, it turns out that this serious item from 1960 Mad was prophetic.  The actual axolotl is in trouble.  As a story in the NYTimes describes, the axolotl is in danger of extinction, thanks to pollution in its limited Mexican habitats, and its consumption by the locals (I don't know if they peel them or not).

Extlinctlion:  who cares?
The Times story is a discussion of whether or how they should be saved from extinction.  But extinction is a normal part of life on earth, and is it more than just human sentimentality to let them go the true way of all flesh?  Tree-huggers will say that they may be valuable some day for medicine (or nutrition?), or they're cute and fun, or just that we humans ought to stop ravaging the world.  The only species that do well in our territory are chickens, cows, corn, soybeans, rice, and pigs.  They're thriving like nobody's business.  A useful menagerie, yes, but esthetically satisfying?

Is there a scientific or evolutionary question of importance here?  Or is it no different than arguing about what makes good art?  One fallback position of those who cry 'wolf!' about extinctions is that, in this case, axolotls eat a lot of other stuff, and if they went away what would happen?  Even the current story says that the environments seem to be surviving even as the axolotls disappear, but from an evolutionary point of view, if there's food around some species will start eating it.  Ecosystems have always come and gone and changed.

Ruing the devastation our species causes is largely esthetic or even political, perhaps as a warning-canary telling us we are endangering species and food-chains that we actually do depend on, or sources of medicines, and that kind of thing.  If we pollute ourselves into trouble, or our activities that destroy species are the same as those that will cause New York to sink under the sea like Atlantis, then the little harmless axolotl is such a canary and we should heed the message--not just for its sake, but for our own.

Of course, defending the persistence of our species is perhaps a kind of sentimentality with which the rest of the world (chickens, cows, and pigs notwithstanding) will have little sympathy.

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