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Axolotl and MDI Bio Lab Featured in Meet the Wild Things Children’s Book Series

  • March 16, 2023

Researchers assist writer Hayley Rocco and award-winning illustrator John Rocco.

Hayley and John Rocco are on a mission to spark young readers’ interest in some very special creatures that are disappearing from the wild.

The couple’s upcoming book series will include overlooked creatures that happen to be supercool, such as the pangolin (a sort of scaly anteater), quokka (rare marsupial) and…the axolotl salamander, which possesses prolific abilities to regenerate its tail, limbs, tissues and even its own brain.

That entry is titled “Hello, I’m an Axolotl”.

Illustrator John Rocco and author Hayley Rocco with MDI Biological Laboratory scientist James Godwin

Bio Lab scientist James Godwin with John and Hayley Rocco

For their axolotl research the Roccos visited the MDI Biological Laboratory campus this winter to confer with experts Prayag Murawala, Ph.D., and James Godwin, Ph.D., to make sure of the physiological facts – and to gain insights on how the unique animal might transform the science of human health.

With simple but zoologically detailed drawings and short, humorous bursts of text, the authors say the illustrated animal biographies are aimed at readers from ages three to seven. Each edition focuses on one species, telling its own story in its own voice.

“The hope is that once someone cares about something, they will want to take care of it,” says Hayley Rocco. A former book publicist, she recently wrote her first children’s book, How to Send a Hug, and with her husband is now hard at work on the “Wild Things” series.

“We try to go to the source for first-hand information,” adds John Rocco, a well-known practitioner in the world of books for young people: illustrator of the Caldecott Honor-winning Blackout, and of New York Times bestsellers such as Percy Jackson’s Greek Gods and Percy Jackson’s Greek Heroes.

“For Hello, I’m a Pangolin, Hayley spent two weeks in the South African bush for the opportunity to see pangolins in their natural habitat,” he says. “When we found out about the work being done at the Murawala lab we knew we had to get in touch with you all.”

That resulted in a two-day visit to Bar Harbor that included meeting scientists, students and, importantly, one of the lab’s hundreds of axolotls, which can fascinate kids and scientists alike with their exotic, friendly appearance and compelling regenerative capacities.

Illustrator John Rocco and author Hayley Rocco with MDI Biological Laboratory scientist Prayag Murawala

Hayley and John Rocco and Prayag Murawala

Murawala says that, given the chance, scientists have a moral duty to help inspire young minds with fact-based presentations of scientific wonders.

“I never heard of axolotl until I was a Ph.D.; I didn’t even know that such an animal exists,” Murawala says. “So just educating children that there is an animal out there that can do these amazing things instigates curiosity in kids. If we are looking for tomorrow’s good scientists, we have to cultivate this much, much earlier in their childhood. We have to train them that science is fun; science is cool.”

G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers will publish the first four books in the series, and the authors hope to continue the series with many more.

They will emphasize that while wild species such as axolotls are endangered, humans are taking action to try to expand protected habitats. As Murawala notes, development around the axolotl salamanders’ historic home in waters near what is now Mexico City poses a difficult challenge, with encroachment and polluted runoff hemming them in.

“When the Spanish came it was a huge lake, Lake Xochimilco,” Murawala says. “And that lake is now basically a few channels where there are wild axolotls left….It’s very difficult, a serious predicament for governments to address.”

The axolotl’s genome is ten times as large as the human genome. But as the number of wild animals dwindles, their gene pool can become less resilient, more vulnerable to environmental change and disease. Axolotls kept as pets are descended from a relatively small number of wild originators; at the MDI Biological Laboratory, the scientists work with both wild-type and transgenic breeds.

Estimates of the number of axolotls remaining in the wild range from the low hundreds to 1,200.

“With each animal we try to cover not only the amazing fun facts that make them so special and unique, but also touch on why they are in the predicament they are in and what they offer to the world, whether that’s scientifically or for their ecosystems,” Hayley Rocco says. “We want kids to not only care about these creatures but also provide them with the tools and knowledge so that they too can make a difference. We all can.”

In one section of a draft version of Hello, I’m an Axolotl (which includes sketches of Drs. Murawala and Godwin, replete with lab coats) the proud axolotl narrator talks about the potentially life-changing, nearly magical qualities the animals may be able to pass on to humanity.

“As I said, I am amazing. It’s this superpower that has human scientists so interested in us. Apparently, we are masters at growing back parts of ourselves without any scarring. In laboratories, they want to figure out how we do it so they can improve how humans heal in the future. Do you have any superpowers?”