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The Axolotl in Global Circuits of Knowledge Production: Producing Multispecies Potentiality

By Emily Wanderer

Cite As:
Wanderer, Emily. 2018. “The Axolotl in Global Circuits of Knowledge Production: Producing Multispecies Potentiality.” Cultural Anthropology 33, no. 4: 650–679.


The axolotl is a noteworthy species of salamander, one both biologically remarkable and culturally significant. Native to the canals of Xochimilco, a neighborhood in Mexico City, the charismatic species has deep connections to Mexican history and identity, as well as serving as an important model organism for scientists studying regenerative biology. Drawing on fieldwork in Mexico with restoration ecologists engaged in conserving axolotl habitats, as well as on scientific papers and informal communications among scientists who use axolotls as model organisms, I examine the fate of the axolotl in and out of Xochimilco. Taking up the lives of both wild and cultivated axolotls, this essay asks what is at stake when a species is eliminated from one anthropogenic environment, the canals of Xochimilco, while being made to live in another, the laboratories of scientists studying developmental and regenerative biology. In the lab, axolotls are interpreted as plastic and flexible, potential models for reconfiguring human capabilities, injury, and aging. In the wild, the axolotl is a fragile sentinel species in need of protection that serves as an indicator of the fragility of the ecosystem more broadly. Conservationists interpret its failure to thrive as a message to human populations to reform and reconsider how they live in relation to the environment. This essay demonstrates how, through scientists’ care, axolotls come to represent different forms of potential and produce different insights into human life, enabling distinct imaginings of the future.


potentiality; care; restoration ecology; regenerative biology; multispecies ethnography; Mexico