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The Mexican Axolotl and the Early History of Laboratory Animals, 1600-today

Project by Dr. Christian Reiss

Laboratory animals have been an integral part of biomedical research since the 19th century. Epistemologically, they serve as models for fundamental processes of life or stand in for humans. On a practical level, they are part of the experimental systems set up to investigate objects in the laboratory. But they are also co-inhabitants of these spaces and have multiple and complex relations with the people working there.

The Mexican axolotl (Ambystoma mexicanum) is one such laboratory animal. Its history offers a unique opportunity for a long-term history of a species’ way into the laboratory. The project brings together a focus on the practices of animal keeping and laboratory research with approaches from human-animal studies. The result is a long durée perspective of the species’ history from the first reports in the earliest natural history books on the Americas from the 17th century, to the first preserved specimens collected by Alexander von Humboldt around 1800 until the arrival and proliferation of the first living axolotls across Europe in the second half of the 19th century.

This project is interested in the history of these different constellations and historical processes that connect them. It specifically looks into the spread of the living axolotls across Europe from 1864 onwards. Using approaches from history of science and landscape ecology, it tracks the establishment of a European axolotl population. This mapping is the basis to understand the ways in which developments in the sciences and the emerging aquarium hobby in popular culture facilitated this spread and how the easy availability of axolotls affected scientific practices.

Related projects

Aquariums and the History of the Laboratory in the Life Sciences
Julius Schaxel and the History of Developmental and Theoretical Biology


Reiß, Christian (2020): Der Axolotl. Ein Labortier im Heimaquarium, 1864-1914, Göttingen: Wallstein.

Reiß, Christian; Uwe Hoßfeld und Lennart Olsson (2016): Der mexikanische Axolotl als Labortier im Wandel der Zeit, BIOspektrum 22(6), S. 660-661.

Reiß, Christian; Lennart Olsson und Uwe Hoßfeld (2015): The History of the Oldest Self-Sustaining Laboratory Animal: 150 Years of Axolotl Research, Journal of Experimental Zoology 324(5), S. 393-404.

Reiß, Christian; Uwe Hoßfeld und Lennart Olsson (2014): Zwischen Labor und Aquarium oder: Wie ein Amphib die Welt eroberte. 150 Jahre Axolotl, Biologie in unserer Zeit 44, S. 188-195.

Reiß, Christian (2014): August Weismanns frühe Evolutionsforschung: Experiment und Theorie im künstlichen Naturraum, Rudolstädter naturhistorische Schriften 20, S. 11–29.

Reiß, Christian (2012): Gateway, Instrument, Environment: The Aquarium as a Hybrid Space between Animal Fancying and Experimental Zoology, NTM Zeitschrift für Geschichte der Wissenschaften, Technik und Medizin 24, S. 309–336.

Reiß, Christian (2012): Wie die Zoologie das Füttern lernte. Die Ernährung von Tieren in der Zoologie im 19. Jahrhundert, Berichte zur Wissenschaftsgeschichte 35, S. 286–299.

Reiß, Christian (2011): Axolotl, in: Abteilung III des Max-Planck-Instituts für Wissenschaftsgeschichte (Hrsg.): Eine Naturgeschichte für das 21. Jahrhundert. Zu Ehren von Hans-Jörg Rheinberger, Berlin: Eigenverlag, S. 132–134.

  1. Fakultät für Philosophie, Kunst-, Geschichts- und Gesellschaftswissenschaften
  2. Institut für Philosophie