Axolotls are a unique salamander native to the lakes around Mexico City. Unlike other salamanders, the axolotl does not “grow up” and lives its whole life underwater. They never emerge onto land like their cousins.
Because of this, this can be kept in fish tanks and are one of the more popular salamanders. They are pretty easy to care for, as they are incredibly hardy. They can even be bred in captivity, which allows them to be purchased for relatively cheap. The temperature and water flow are the most critical factors determining whether they thrive in captivity, but these factors are often accessible for even beginners to get right.
Quick Facts about the Axolotl
|Species Name||Ambystoma mexicanum|
|Temperature||Between 57 and 68 degrees Fahrenheit|
|Diet||Earthworms, bloodworms, and similar prey items|
|Minimum Tank Size||15-gallon tank|
|Tank Set-Up||Hiding spots, large gravel, filter|
The axolotl is commonly called the “Walking Fish”, as they are an entirely aquatic species that develops legs and “walks”. However, they are not fish at all. They’re a salamander that simply never leaves the water. Instead, they develop their legs and remain underwater even after reaching full development. They breed underwater and spend their whole life there, which makes them unique in the salamander world. This salamander never undergoes a metamorphosis.
They are found in several lakes around Mexico City. Their small native area has caused them to become critically endangered, primarily due to people’s activities and city development. In 2010, they were near extinction due to the urbanization of Mexico City and the water pollution that came with it. Invasive species that preyed on the salamander also played a role.
The axolotl is sometimes confused with the waterdog, a similar salamander that occasionally spends its whole life in water. They also bear some resemblance to mudpuppies. This species does spend their whole life underwater, but they do not bear many resemblances to the axolotl. Both of these species are widespread, while the axolotl lives natively in a tiny area.
Axolotl are commonly kept as pets, with their popularity increasing each year. However, they are also extensively used in scientific research as they quickly grow back their limbs. They were once a staple in the Aztec diet and were once sold as food, though their rarity now makes that difficult and often illegal.
What Do Axolotls Cost?
Axolotls are not expensive. You can expect to pay anywhere between $20 to $70. Unlike some other exotic pet species, these animals can be easily bred in captivity. The best place to adopt them is from a local breeder. It is important not to purchase these animals through online classified ads and similar mediums, as many people who sell there may not have the animal’s health in mind.
You should always research a seller before purchasing from them. Not only is this important for the health of your axolotl, but it is also essential not to fund sub-par breeders or those abusing the species to make a few dollars. Axolotls are relatively newer pets, so it isn’t odd for bulk breeders to produce sub-par animals to make money.
Ask any seller about the origin of the animal, as well as their health history. If the breeder bred the salamander their selves, you should ask about the health of the parents. Ask to see the space where the axolotl is staying. The quality of the tank is often a good sign as to the quality of the animal. However, you should be aware that some breeders may have a separate, excellent “show” tank where they keep animals they’re selling, though they may not have grown up in similar conditions.
Axolotls with rare colorings are likely to be more expensive than those with “normal” colorings. If you want an axolotl with a specific color, you should plan on spending a bit more money.
Never purchase an axolotl without seeing it first. A healthy salamander will be active and may accept the food that it is offered. Because axolotls only eat until they are full, don’t assume an axolotl that doesn’t want to eat is unhealthy. This is often a good test with fish, but not this salamander. The animal’s skin should not be flaky, as this can be a sign of some diseases.
Typical Behavior and Temperament
These salamanders are pretty hardy and can put up with significant changes in their environment. They are somewhat adaptable and not nearly as sensitive as other fish. However, they are pretty squishy—literally. Much of their body is cartilage, not bone. They also have permeable skin that is susceptible to poor water conditions. Axolotls are sensitive to handling, for this reason, so they shouldn’t be handled more than necessary.
Generally, these animals don’t need much care. They will usually only need a few hours of work per week with the correct tank setup. These creatures are fun animals to watch and are typically not shy at all. Axolotls don’t mind interacting with people through the glass and are pretty interactive even though they can’t be handled.
These salamanders have a unique ability to regenerate limbs. If something gets bitten off, it will grow back with time. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you shouldn’t be cautious of injuries. They can still cause stress, which can lead to infections and diseases.
Appearance & Varieties
The axolotl comes in several different colors. Most of these are only found in captivity and were developed through selective breeding. In the wild, only the “wild” type exists. Here are some of the most common colorations:
There are also some very rare colorations that are difficult to find. Often, these axolotls are quite a bit more expensive and may require some extensive searching before you finally find one.
Some other variants exist, but they are practically unobtainable. They are often developed for genetic research and other types of scientific investigation. Sometimes, a batch of axolotls may be one of a kind.
How to Take Care of an Axolotl
Habitat, Tank Conditions & Setup
You will need at least a 15- to 20-gallon fish tank for your axolotl to stay in. Generally, bigger is better, so we recommend choosing the 20-gallon, if possible. Larger tanks have less fluctuation in temperature and water quality, which will keep your salamander healthier. The tank should be outfitted with a secure lid, as axolotls can jump out of their habitat. This can spell disaster for these aquatic creatures, so it is best to prevent it entirely with a lid. Plus, the lid will also prevent anything from getting into the tank, such as dust and bugs.
Unlike other salamanders, you will not need to set up a land area in your axolotl’s tank. They are entirely aquatic creatures and have no use for a land surface.
The depth of the water should be at least over the length of the axolotl. However, extra depth is preferred. This will provide your salamander with more room to move and will prevent issues with water quality.
The tank should not be kept in direct sunlight, as this can encourage algae to grow. No special lighting is required for these animals. You don’t even need a light at all if you prefer. Any light will solely function to help you view the animal.
The temperature should stay somewhere between 57 and 68 degrees Fahrenheit. In most cases, you will not need a heater to meet this temperature requirement. Often, your bigger problem will be keeping the water cool and preventing overheating. The water should not reach above 75 degrees, as this is far too hot for an axolotl and can cause health problems. Water chillers are available to keep the water at this temperature if your area happens to be warmer.
Hiding spots are recommended, as they can help your pet feel a bit safer. There are many commercial hiding spots available, or you can use a DIY option like a flowerpot.
Substrate is not required, and you may see many tanks without it. However, it can make the axolotl stressed if they cannot get a foothold on the bottom. You may want to add gravel to provide some grip. It should be larger than the salamander’s head to prevent it from being eaten, which can cause impaction. You can also use terrarium sand, which the salamander is less likely to confuse as food.
Tap water is not safe for axolotls, as it contains chlorine and chloramines that can be harmful and cause health problems. Instead, it will need to be treated before it is used to remove the dangerous chemicals. Distilled water is also not recommended. The pH of the water should be between 6.5 to 7.5. A filter is recommended to maintain the water quality of the tank. You can choose not to use a filter, but it will often mean more water changes and work. Filters should have a very slow filtration rate, as these animals are not used to high flow rates. They live in lakes, after all.
To upkeep a filtered tank, you should change 20% of the water each week and clean the substrate with a siphon. This will help remove waste that will further plummet the water quality. Without a filter, you will have to do a 20% water change daily. Do not completely change the water, as this will alter the water chemistry drastically and cause stress.
Do Axolotls Get Along With Other Pets?
Axolotls are not social animals. They do not enjoy tank mates and should be kept by themselves. They shouldn’t be kept with fish, as they will eat them. The fish may also nip the axolotl. While this isn’t necessarily a terrible thing, it can cause unnecessary stress. Axolotls are cannibalistic towards each other, especially when they are younger. For this reason, it is best to keep them in separate containers, even when they are still very young.
Sometimes, adults will get along fine together. However, it isn’t odd for them to suddenly turn cannibalistic again, even after years of living together.
What to Feed Your Axolotl
When in captivity, an axolotl can be fed a varied diet of shrimp, stripes of beef, bloodworms, earthworms, and other frozen prey items. These are often available at your local pet store in a freezer and are not as expensive as you would imagine.
You should not use worms that are intended for fishing, as these may contain parasites. They are not kept to the same standards as worms meant for captive pets. Do not use worms that you catch yourself either, as these can contain parasites.
Axolotls do not need any supplements. If they are fed a varied diet, they typically receive everything they need from their food. Large earthworms are the most complete food for axolotls. However, other prey items can be used as well.
The easiest way to feed these pets is to hold the food in round-nosed forceps and move it around near the axolotl. If they are hungry, they will typically eat it. Adults only eat 2–3 times a week, but younger axolotls will eat more. They are most active in the evenings, so many prefer to eat at this time. These animals don’t tend to overeat, so you usually don’t have to worry about them consuming too much food.
Remove all uneaten food from the tank to keep the water clean. Food will begin to decay in the water, which will quickly reduce the water quality.
Keeping Your Axolotl Healthy
Axolotls are not sensitive to injuries, as they can regenerate their limbs. This is true for other body parts as well, such as their heart tissue. If the injury is not immediately life-threatening, then these animals will generally regrow whatever was destroyed.
However, this superpower doesn’t mean that they are entirely healthy. They are prone to bacterial infections and parasites. Unsanitary tank conditions often lead to bacterial infections, especially if the animal is stressed.
Ammonia buildup in the water can also be toxic, leading to gasping and inflammation. Ammonia burns their gills, which will eventually lead to their death. Keeping the water quality good is essential to their wellbeing.
Gastrointestinal obstructions are common, as they are prone to eating inedible items. Luckily, they only have access to what we put in their tank. Therefore, don’t put anything in their tank that is mouth-sized, as they will likely eat it. Gravel should be larger than the axolotl’s head so that it cannot be eaten.
Breeding two axolotls typically includes keeping two adults in the same tank. They should both be adults to limit cannibalism, and the tank will need to be quite large. Axolotls lay eggs. Typically, the male will deposit his sperm sacks onto a flat surface, which the female will then collect. The fertilized eggs will be laid an hour or so later.
The tank should have plenty of space for the female to lay her eggs, and she should be generally unstressed. Otherwise, she will not mate.
Are Axolotls Suitable for You?
If you’re looking for an exotic but easy pet, then an axolotl is probably your best option. These salamanders are unique in that they live underwater their whole lives. They are hardy creatures that don’t require much care. If you set up their tank correctly with a filter, you’ll only need to change their water weekly and feed them 2–3 times a week as adults. This is far less care than other animals require, which can make them suitable options for those without much time on their hands.
Still, keeping the water quality good is essential for their health, as they are prone to bacterial infections. They may be able to regrow limbs, but this doesn’t mean that they’re immortal. Keep an eye on the water quality and your axolotl can live a very long life.
Featured Image Credit: Jeffrey Lagmay, Shutterstock