How an Order of Nuns Is Fighting to Save One of the World’s Rarest Amphibians

The Lake Pátzcuaro salamander has been used to make cough medicine.

An order of nuns in Mexico is teaming up with students and conservationists from their country and conservationists from England’s Chester Zoo to help save a rare species of salamanders. 

The zoo, along with students from Michoacana University, a Mexican government fisheries center and a group of Mexican nuns are working together to craft a new breeding plan for the Lake Pátzcuaro salamander. 

The Lake Pátzcuaro salamander has been all but wiped out by pollution and over-fishing. The new breeding plan is aiming at bringing the species back from the brink and scientists say the nuns, who traditionally use the salamanders to make cough medicine, could hold the key to their survival.

The species of salamander once thrived in Lake Pátzcuaro, Mexico’s third-largest lake, and has become of great importance for the locals that have lived in the area. Only 100 are believed to remain there. 

The Chester Zoo is home to six breeding pairs of the salamander, with a further 30 adults at the Michoacana University of Mexico and at a Mexican government fisheries center, both located in the city of Morelia in southwest Mexico. 

Twenty-three nuns from nearby Pátzcuaro belong to The Sisters of the Monastery of the Dominican of Order, and have been caring for the salamanders for more than 150 years to create a special cough medicine. 

However, due to deforestation and fishing, the population of the salamanders has diminished and the nuns have been doing all they can to breed them in their convent in a desperate bid to save the species and their traditions. 

Experts believe the population being kept by the nuns will play a key role in any future reintroduction back into the wild

“The nuns deserve enormous credit in keeping this species alive," Dr. Gerardo Garcia, the Chester Zoo’s Curator of Lower Vertebrates and Invertebrates, said in a statement. "Now, in partnership with the Sisters, a European network of zoos and the University of Michoacana in Mexico, we are fighting to breed a thriving population for eventual reintroduction back into the wild."

The species of salamander is unique, as it spends its whole life in its larval form. Instead of evolving and migrating to land, it keeps its gills and lives in fresh water.