Jan 23

Axolotls – Q&A with Ethan Kocak

Animals have always interested me, from when I was a kid seeing my dad studying them to recreate as woodcarvings. Even now, I’m fascinated by their ability to adapt to overcome, and how their diversity still holds secrets. I started hearing about the axolotl from a webcomic friend of mine, Ethan Kocak, who happens to know a lot about amphibians. I asked this creator of a salamander-based comic about the axolotl.

Travis Blair: Where the heck does the name “axolotl” come from?

Ethan Kocak: The word axolotl is from the Aztec language, Nahuatl, the same language that gave us words like “chocolate” and “avocado.” Specifically, it’s most likely a reference to the Aztec god of misfortune and sickness, Xolotl, however some sources say “xolotl” may have been a generic word like “monster” or “creature” used to refer to any sort of strange beast. There are accounts of Aztecs referring to the horses (an animal they were not familiar with) ridden by the Spanish as “xolotls.”

Travis: What are those frilly things on its head? I hope it isn’t offended when I say that it looks like it has some wild hair.

Ethan: Those frilly feathery things are actually gills. All larval salamanders have them! They also have lungs, just in case.

Travis: Why does this amphibian always look like a big tadpole? The axolotl – living life with wild hair and a youthful appearance.

Ethan: In a sense, they are big tadpoles. Axolotls are what are known as neotenic, or paedomorphic salamanders. Instead of maturing into land-dweling adults, they retain their gills and other juvenile features and stay aquatic. This is why they are often used in laboratory research: because they are essentially big, free-swimming embryos, they have this amazing ability to regenerate their bodies, including limbs, tails, even parts of their head.

Travis: What is it that intrigues you about the axolotl?

Ethan: As if all that other stuff I mentioned wasn’t enough, I just find them fascinating to watch. I have a pair of them in an aquarium in our living room, and they are always up to something.

Travis: You have a webcomic called Black Mudpuppy. What is the difference between a mudpuppy and an axolotl?

Ethan: I was very much inspired by the Aztec mythology I mentioned, so when I created my comic, I wanted to incorporate axolotls. Mudpuppies (Necturus maculosus) are another favorite of mine and are also large, neotenic salamanders, but they aren’t closely related to axolotls, which are from a different branch of the salamander family tree. Mudpuppies are larger and since they live in the north-eastern parts of North America are more cold-adapted. Thanks for asking me these questions!

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Be sure to check out Ethan’s webcomic, Black Mudpuppy. Look for him on Twitter here.

Image credit: National Geographic.