With their bald heads, button eyes and gummy smiles, axolotls are undeniably cute… and weird. Aside from their chunky bodies and comically short limbs, they sport some seriously outrageous headgear in the shape of six feathery gills that frame their adorable baby faces.
Their unusual appearance harks from the fact that the axolotl is the Peter Pan of the animal kingdom. They never really grow up because they are ‘neotenous’, which means that – unlike most amphibians – they never metamorphose into lung-breathing, land-living adults. Instead, they retain juvenile features such as gills, tails and a preference for living in water.
The axolotl – a species of salamander – is critically endangered and native only to Mexico City’s Lake Xochimilco. However, captive populations are thriving in labs around the world, as researchers study the axolotl’s extraordinary ability to regrow whole limbs, bits of brain, and segments of spinal cord when injured.
Genes will be at the heart of this superpower, and, in 2018, scientists decoded the axolotl’s genome, in the hope that we may one day be able to harness this ability for ourselves. They found that the genome contains 32 billion DNA base pairs, making it 10 times larger than the human genome, and the biggest animal genome deciphered to date. Why that is, no one knows!