Besides the students, staff, and faculty who frequent it, GPRC Fairview campus is also home to a group of unusual residents. If you attend this campus, you’ve probably noticed them in fish tanks in the offices and classrooms: tiny, aquatic salamanders known as axolotls, whose unique biological properties make them the perfect subjects of study for animal health students.
Dr. Chris Mizzi, Animal Sciences instructor at GPRC, has been breeding and raising the amphibious creatures as a hobby for around twenty years. He first became interested in the axolotl when his university chemistry instructor introduced him to them. “It kind of started my fascination with amphibians,” Mizzi said. “I’ve been involved with them ever since.”
Students in Dr. Mizzi’s classes are always offered the opportunity to care for axolotl eggs during the two- to four-week incubation period. Mizzi notes that the students would probably never otherwise get an opportunity to see the rare creature up close. Axolotls are of special interest to the medical research community for their regenerative properties. “They can regenerate most of their body parts,” explained Mizzi. “If they get a leg cut off, they can regrow it. Eyeballs, parts of their liver – they can even heal their own spinal cord.”
Axolotls are also excellent case studies for embryotic development. “The eggs are so large you can actually see them develop with the naked eye,” said Mizzi, adding that the transparent membrane allows a clear window to the inner workings of the egg. “I’ve seen them change from one cell to two cells to four cells. You can see them form gills and the head and you can just watch everything.” Because most organisms go through a similar process in utero, studying axolotl eggs can teach students a lot about fetal development.
“It’s the first time I’ve ever seen these guys,” said Kaytlin Evans, first year Animal Sciences student. “They started out looking like a tiny little bean. Now they’ve developed gills on the side of their face. Yesterday I noticed them moving.” Evans values the opportunity to work with an axolotl up close: “It’s a great experience to be able to deal with different types of animals, especially amphibians and reptiles. I hope to specialize in exotics, so this was a good learning experience.”