Adventures in Ethics and Science

Dr. Free-Ride: What was it we were going to talk about today?

Elder offspring: The axolotl.

Dr. Free-Ride: Can you please spell that?

Elder offspring: A-X-O-L-O- … wait. A-X-O-T-O-L. Wait! A-X-O-L-O-T-O-L. I think.

Dr. Free-Ride: Hmm. I shall do some checking on the spelling. And what is it?

Elder offspring: It’s a salamander that has achieved eternal youth!

i-fd5e1c24b7031ac911efd8ffcdc21f18-axolotl-small.jpg

Dr. Free-Ride: Eternal youth?

Elder offspring: At least, youth for the rest of its life.

Dr. Free-Ride: Um, I guess that’s eternal enough for that individual. So what does it mean for a salamander to achieve eternal youth? Does it mean it never matures?

Elder offspring: It can be made to keep its gills for its entire life.

Dr. Free-Ride: You’re saying that your standard salamander doesn’t keep its gills past a certain stage when it’s young?

Elder offspring: Nope. But it still has to live by water.

Dr. Free-Ride: I see. Does an axolotl have to live near water more than a standard salamander?

Elder offspring: Well, it has to live in water, but it can surface for a few seconds at a time, which is good.

Dr. Free-Ride: So it’s actually less amphibious than other salamanders, is what you’re telling me.

Elder offspring: I don’t know.

Dr. Free-Ride: Well, it seems like if it has to stay in water more than your regular salamander –

Elder offspring: It can stay in water for its entire life.

Dr. Free-Ride: Yeah, but what happens in case of drought?

Elder offspring: It dies.

Dr. Free-Ride: Is it more vulnerable to drought than other kinds of salamander?

Elder offspring: Mmmm — yeah, sort of.

Dr. Free-Ride: What do you think is cool about them besides that they keep their gills for their whole lives?

Elder offspring: Well, they were named by the Aztecs after their god of lightning, Xolotl.

Dr. Free-Ride: Wait a minute, what do these salamanders have to do with lightning?

Elder offspring: I don’t know! They’re awesome. I guess that’s what they have to do with it, because lightning is awesome.

Dr. Free-Ride: I see.

Elder offspring: And people use albino ones for lab work, because they thrive in labs, and when they’re albino people can, like, dye their bones with a pigment so they can see their bones through their skin.

Dr. Free-Ride: So it’s a relatively non-invansive way to get information about the bones in a living axolotl?

Elder offspring: Yeah. And they can do experiments with them. There was this guy who put an axolotl in a tank with half light and half dark, and the axolotl took a quick look around and then scurried into the dark side, even when it was offered a worm on the light side.

Dr. Free-Ride: I see.

Elder offspring: And so the guy wondered, is it the axolotl’s eyes or the axolotl’s skin that makes it sensitive to light? So the guy removed the axolotl’s eyes and then put it half in and half out [of the light], and the axolotl stayed there. And then the guy reconnected the eyes — in salamanders how this works is, after a few weeks, the salamander can see again because the optical nerve, I think it’s called, reconnects to the brain.

Dr. Free-Ride: That’s pretty cool. I didn’t know that was even possible.

Elder offspring: It is, in salamanders.

Dr. Free-Ride: Cool.

Elder offspring: And, when the axolotl’s eyes were back in, it still preferred the dark side. (In an ominous voice) Come to the Dark Side! We have cookies.

Dr. Free-Ride: But do you have worms? If you don’t have worms, I don’t want any part of it.

Elder offspring: Yeah, we have worms, too.

Dr. Free-Ride: Where did you learn all this stuff about axolotls?

Elder offspring: In a book on albino animals. There was a bit about axolotls.

Dr. Free-Ride: I see. Do you think albino animals in general are cool, or only certain albino animals?

Elder offspring: In general they’re cool, but sometimes they can turn out plain ugly. But axolotls look cute when they’re albino, with their pink gills and pale skin.

Dr. Free-Ride: You know that Snowflake’s pink eyes still freak me out.

Elder offspring: Yeah.

Dr. Free-Ride: But it’s not her fault.

Elder offspring: It’s like she’s saying, “There is darkness in Heaven!” Or something.

Dr. Free-Ride: Ummm.

Elder offspring: Because evil things often have red eyes –

Dr. Free-Ride: Oh, so this is one of your litmus tests for evil, is you check a creatures eyes, and if they’re red, then bingo? Wow. That’s good to know. Is there a biological basis for that judgment, or what?

Elder offspring: I don’t know.

Dr. Free-Ride: Has anyone done the research to see what the correlation is between eye color and evil?

Elder offspring: No, but we can just check all red-eyed animals’ intentions and it is clinically proven, after they take a certain drug, that 75% of their intentions are evil. The other 25% of them are just to get cookies.

Dr. Free-Ride: So you think evil is primarily a matter of intention and not effect?

Elder offspring: Mmm-hmm.

Dr. Free-Ride: Wow. So you think someone who had evil intentions but was sort of a bumbler and ended up accidentally doing good would still be evil?

Elder offspring: Yesssss.

Dr. Free-Ride: Interesting. So you’re a Kantian?

Elder offspring: What?

Dr. Free-Ride: Yeah, exactly. You’ll learn, when you’re older. Anything else you want to say about axolotls?

Elder offspring: They’re endangered in the wild. Drought and water pollution make it hard for them to survive, so don’t pollute the water! And don’t step on axolotls that become adults, OK people?

Dr. Free-Ride: I guess only step in the sunny parts of the creek, maybe?

Elder offspring: Axolotls might go to the sunny parts if they have to.

Dr. Free-Ride: If there’s no shade. And I guess the risk of introducing plants to give them more shade is that those plants might end up being invasive species.

Elder offspring: So just watch where you walk.

Comments

  1. #1 Pteryxx
    June 11, 2010

    …Sooo much QOTD material!

    Dr. Free-Ride: Has anyone done the research to see what the correlation is between eye color and evil?

    Elder offspring: No, but we can just check all red-eyed animals’ intentions and it is clinically proven, after they take a certain drug, that 75% of their intentions are evil. The other 25% of them are just to get cookies.

    You KNOW that’s going to appear on TVTropes in 3… 2… 1…

  2. #2 becca
    June 11, 2010

    I love the axolotl

  3. #3 Jared
    June 11, 2010

    So, the moral here: the elder offspring likes neoteny and albinism?

    Dr. Free-Ride: Wow. So you think someone who had evil intentions but was sort of a bumbler and ended up accidentally doing good would still be evil?

    Elder offspring: Yesssss.

    Dr. Free-Ride: Interesting. So you’re a Kantian?

    Elder offspring: What?

    Dr. Free-Ride: Yeah, exactly. You’ll learn, when you’re older

    Cute.

  4. #4 Jessica
    June 11, 2010

    I always look forward to Sprog Blogging. Everyone should have conversations like this with their kids!

    My absolute favorite: It’s like she’s saying, “There is darkness in Heaven!” Or something.

  5. #5 Jim Thomerson
    June 11, 2010

    Some years ago, a colleague told of a mark and recapture study of the related tiger salamander (which is more interesting than axolotls, I think)in New Mexico. He marked a number of tiger salamanders in a pond which dried up and stayed dry for ten years. It rained, and the pond refilled. He got 100% recapture of his marked salamanders, which suggests that they are immortal.

  6. #6 Allyson
    June 11, 2010

    I love Friday Sprog Blogging, but today was especially excellent. Star Wars jokes and herpetology! I love the axolotl drawing. Jim, I think both tiger salamanders and axolotls are pretty sweet, although the cannabilistic possibilities of tiger sals may give them the upper hand. Thanks for the post!

  7. #7 $0.01
    June 12, 2010

    This. Is. The. Best. Post. Ever!
    I really wish you were our neighbors!!!

  8. #8 Schwa
    June 12, 2010

    so i herd u liek mudkips

  9. #9 Jared
    June 13, 2010

    There are neotenic tiger salamanders; I use them for fishing bait quite frequently.

  10. #10 Dario Ringach
    June 13, 2010

    A great book about animal eyes:

    http://www.amazon.com/Animal-Eyes-Oxford-Biology/dp/0198509685

    …but won’t answer the question about evil red eyes.

  11. #11 leigh van valen
    June 17, 2010

    As glaciations and interglacials alternated, tiger salamanders in Kansas and such alternated between neotenic and not.

    Then there’s my evodevo song:

    I’m a salamand
    South o’ Rio Grande,
    And my legs stay short
    And my gills don’t abort.
    I’m an axolotl, not an axolittle,
    And I’d rather git than be a victual,
    But my thyroid’s so very noncommital.
    Sex is for the young (hey!)
    Or thim that feels that way.

    (melody cribbed from I’m an old cowhand. . .)

  12. #12 leigh van valen
    June 17, 2010

    As glaciations and interglacials alternated, tiger salamanders in Kansas and such alternated between neotenic and not.

    Then there’s my evodevo song:

    I’m a salamand
    South o’ Rio Grande,
    And my legs stay short
    And my gills don’t abort.
    I’m an axolotl, not an axolittle,
    And I’d rather git than be a victual,
    But my thyroid’s so very noncommital.
    Sex is for the young (hey!)
    Or thim that feels that way.

    (melody cribbed from I’m an old cowhand. . .)

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