How to keep an axolotl

Axolotls are popular aquatic pets, famed for their ability to regenerate lost limbs and breed while still in juvenile form. Probably the inspiration for How to Train Your Dragon’s Toothless, Axolotls are actually Salamanders, Ambystoma mexicanum, but instead of metamorphosing into land-dwelling, lizard-like Salamanders, they stay in the aquatic, newt-like larval stage their entire lives, grow large, and can even reproduce.

Axolotls originate from Lake Xochimilco in Mexico, although they are now nearly extinct in the wild due to pollution, the introduction of invasive fish species and the building of Mexico City. They are alive and well in captivity however as pets and as scientific models, with the white-bodied, black-eyed leucistic colour variant being the most popular.

In the wild, they are olive coloured, but olive, gold and jet black are also available to keep as pets, as well as piebald, with black marks on a white body. Noticeable on all axolotls are those feathery gills which they need to be able to breathe underwater. Strictly speaking, they are amphibians, although they spend their entire lives underwater and have an entirely aquatic existence.

How to set up for axolotls

Axolotls can reach a maximum length of 45cm, although 25-30cm is a more common adult size. That means that although available when just 10-15cm in length, these creatures will grow, and will need roomy accommodation to house them long term.

A large glass terrarium with the bottom section filled with water could be used, but unusually for an amphibian, an aquarium is a better choice and they don’t need a land section to haul out onto. A 90-100cm aquarium could home up to four adult axolotls, with a 120cm, 240-litre aquarium being suitable for up to six, although they are often just kept in pairs. 

Because of their lives underwater, Axolotls don’t need UV lamps or basking lamps, hot or cool areas, and instead, the aquarium should be unheated, with the ideal temperature range being from 16-22C. Avoid temperatures above or below that as the animals can become sick. So no heater should be necessary, but these large carnivores will produce a lot of waste, so sufficient filtration and regular water changes are key, just like with a fish tank.

Tap water can be used with a pH of 6-8, although Chlorine and Chloramine are damaging to Axolotls and filter bacteria, so a dechlorinator should always be used. Standard aquatic light is fine, and excessive bright light will only cause unwanted algae problems. 

Decor choice

Decor, or lack of it, is very important for the Axolotl aquarium. They are known for ingesting grit and gravel while sucking in food from the bottom and this can cause them problems long term. So keepers either opt for very fine sand which can pass through the gut (and is soft on Axolotl skin,) large pebbles which are too large to be eaten, or no substrate at all, and just a glass bottom, which is also easy to keep clean.

Larger rocks and wood can be used as additional decor and Axolotls may perch or lie on them, and either artificial or live plants are fine to be used too.

Replicating the natural habitat of the Axolotl isn’t easy as Lake Xochimilco has changed so much due to draining, development and canal systems, that no one is really sure what the perfect Axolotl natural habitat is. Whatever it is, isn’t to their liking now as none were found in the lake in 2010, and only a few specimens were found in joining canals. But strong currents are probably to be avoided.

Tankmates

The best company for an Axolotl is other Axolotls, or they can even be kept on their own. If fish are added they will even be eaten by the Axolotl, or the fish will eat the delicate gill filaments as the Axolotl lie motionless on the bottom. Leave all other creatures out. Keep them only with other specimens that are their own size as larger ones could eat smaller ones, and underfed specimens may even try to eat limbs.

Feeding

Axolotls will eat sinking pellets, frozen cockles and mussels, chunks of fish, Earthworms and bloodworm. They have poor eyesight but a good sense of smell, so drop the food in and they will sniff it out, move up to it and inhale it. Remove any uneaten food and don’t overfeed.

Breeding

Axolotls can be bred, with males being recognisable by their swollen vent, underneath the base of their tail, and females become swollen with eggs. Toes can also darken in colour on the light coloured variants, when sexually mature.

To induce spawning, conduct a cooler water change and the male should move up to the female, drop sperm, she will move over it and lay up to 1500 eggs. Remove the fertilised eggs to prevent the parents from eating them.      


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