How Nuns in Mexico Are Helping Save a Critically Endangered Salamander

The Sisters of the Monastery of the Dominican of Order have maintained a genetically diverse pool of Lake Pátzcuaro salamanders. Chester Zoo/Michoacana University

Saving a critically endangered salamander requires a lot of people willing to get a little wet and slimy.

It also, apparently, takes nuns.

The Sisters of the Monastery of the Dominican of Order in Pátzcuaro, Mexico, are working with Chester Zoo in the United Kingdom and Michoacán University in Mexico to rebuild the population of salamanders, which are found only in a lake near the nuns' monastery.

Saving a species

A salamander in a Chester Zoo tank
The Lake Pátzcuaro salamander is not an axolotl, though they do belong to the same family. Chester Zoo

The salamanders (Ambystoma dumerilii) once thrived in Lake Pátzcuaro, their only known home in the wild. Over the past century, however, the introduction of exotic fish to the lake, the destruction of the surrounding forest that altered the lake's shoreline and over-harvesting of the salamanders for a specialty dish pushed the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) to designate the salamander as critically endangered, with perhaps only 100 individuals thought to exist in the wild.

While the Pátzcuaro salamander is a different species than the axolotl, another Mexican salamander that faces extinction, they certainly look alike. This is in part because the Pátzcuaro salamander retains its larval characteristics its whole life, like the axolotl. So both species sport frilly gills and remain aquatic, feeding on insects and small fish.

The Chester Zoo has maintained six breeding pairs of salamanders while another 30 adults are split between Michoacán University and a Mexican government fisheries center. The nuns, whose monastery is located at the edge of the lake, have maintained a genetically diverse population of the salamanders for 150 years, and their population could be the key to saving the species.

Salamanders in their tank at the Sisters of the Monastery of the Dominican of Order monastery
The nuns' salamanders may be the key to saving the species. Chester Zoo/Michoacana University

"After visiting Mexico in 2014, we had the unique opportunity to meet the nuns who are keeping the species in their monastery," Gerardo Garcia, the zoo's curator of lower vertebrates and invertebrates, said in a statement, "And we now believe that the population they are looking after is one of the most genetically viable populations in the world.

"The nuns deserve enormous credit in keeping this species alive. Now, in partnership with the sisters, a European network of zoos and the University of Michoacán in Mexico, we are fighting to breed a thriving population for eventual reintroduction back into the wild."

A nun speakers to researchers about the Lake Patzcuaro salamander
The nuns have passed on their techniques for caring for the salamanders. Chester Zoo/Michoacana University

Because the nuns have bred the salamanders for over a century to produce a special cough medicine, they're considered the experts in keeping the amphibians alive in captivity.

"I feel like they need our care and protection," Sister Ofelia Morales Francisco told BBC News, "and that is exactly what we're doing."

Researchers have begun various projects to ascertain the salamander population in the lake. They're using traps to count the individuals, collecting skin samples to determine if the salamanders in the lake have health issues, evaluating the lake's water quality and making sure there's enough food in the lake for the salamanders — all steps needed to ensure that reintroduced individuals will be able to survive in the lake.