Everything you’ve ever wanted to know about the alien-looking axolotl

Guest post by Cayleigh A
Anatomy Of An Axolotl Card by SophieCorriganShop

When I was younger, I had a book with fabulous pictures of animals around the world, and the most prized page showed an alien smiling beatifically.

Okay, it wasn’t an alien, but axolotls (Ambystoma mexicanum) certainly have a prehistoric and downright Pokemon quality to them. What’s more is that with a big enough tank and the right care, they can live in your home.

About Axolotls

By: fronx - CC BY 2.0
By: fronxCC BY 2.0
In the wild, axolotls are Critically Endangered (if you own an axie and have ever put your comparatively giant hand into the tank, only to have them swim right up and try and eat it, you might suspect terrible survival instinct plays a part in this). If you were to buy an axolotl from a breeder or a pet shop, it is highly likely to have been bred in captivity.

Before pet owners got involved, axolotls were captivity-bred by scientists, because not only are they interesting to look at, they have a biological, Tenth-Doctor-in-a-Christmas-Special quirk: regenerative properties. As in, if they lose an arm (or tail, or gill), it grows right back again. When axolotls are quite small they can commonly bite off their brothers and sisters appendages whilst trying to eat food (why are they endangered again?), so this certainly comes in handy.

The second really cool fact about them is that they are neotonous, which is a Wikipedia article you should definitely read right now. Neotony means they live their lives in their larval state, and can actually sexually reproduce whilst still juveniles. They still grow teeny lungs, and occasionally you might see your axie swimming to the surface, grab a big gulpful of air, then sink slowly to the bottom again. One of my axolotls, Etrigan, has found a way to sink slowly to the top, which is both impossible and looks like he’s being taken by the Rapture. Axolotls can and have “morphed,” which means they grow lungs and lose the gills… it’s not good for their health, but I won’t go into it here.

How to keep them

There is lots of information on the web for keeping axies, the most well-known of which are Axolotl.org (whose page on “Cycling a Tank” you MUST read before getting these pets) and the forum Caudata.org. People can sometimes get a little snippy on the forums, but if you are interested in keeping these pets, stick them out, as they’re very helpful. Very basically though, you need:

1. The Tank
If you can, get as big as you can afford — then if you want to get tankmates for your axolotl, it’ll be easier. The minimum for one axie is a 10 US gallon tank (or 60 litres). If you have more than one axie, go for a foot of length of tank per axolotl, so for example two axies in one two-foot long tank. Axolotls don’t swim that much, preferring instead to wander along the bottom, so footspace is far more important than height. Don’t go for one of those really skinny tanks, even if it is long, as they won’t be able to turn around.

2. Food
Earthworms are the best thing for Axies, however it’s not always easy for everyone to have access to worms. If you don’t have the space or equipment to keep worms, Bloodworms are an acceptable substitute. You can buy these frozen in tin foil cubes, and when the axolotls are small you can simply defrost them and hold the cubes in front of their faces, which they’ll then eat from your hand. They eat like Kirby — sucking in everything in front of them. This is why…

3. Substrate
You must keep axolotls on either sand, slate, or nothing. If you use gravel, they will swallow it when trying to eat. This can then cause internal problems that can sometimes be fatal if the piece swallowed is very big. Axolotls will try to eat anything. Some sources on the internet say they will try to eat anything smaller than the gap between their eyes, but I’ve seen mine go for bigger.

4. Hides
Hides are exactly what they sound like: aquarium decorations the axies can use to hide in or behind. Plant pots are perfect, but different axolotls prefer different things. Etrigan loves hiding behind/on top of the plants, whereas Dougal likes hiding behind more solid ornaments, preferring a piece of bogwood. Hershel owns the plant pot.

5. Miscellaneous

  • Don’t use lights: Axoltols don’t have eyelids and in the wild live in murky water. Lights will stress them out if you use them, although anecdotal evidence on the net suggests blue lights might be alright.
  • Filters: You definitely need a filter and the softer the better. If the water moves too much, it will cause them stress, which can be seen with them curling their gills forward. Even with the filter, you’ll need to change the tank water regularly.
  • Lids: Lots of people don’t have them to regulate the temperature (which should be between 18-25°C), however lots of people do have them because of the horror stories about axolotls jumping out of their tanks. We have a cat, so we have a lid.
  • Turkey baster: Axolotls do very visible poos. Use the baster to pick them out, and help maintain the right water conditions.
  • THE LAW: It’s not legal to keep an axolotl everywhere. I believe California has laws preventing ownership of axolotls, but this is something else the internet should be able to help you with.

As with all pets, do lots of research before buying them to provide the best life possible for them. Even if this article hasn’t persuaded you to spend the 6-8 weeks necessary for cycling a tank and then thoughtfully acquiring some new axies (no rushing things with this pet!), then at least you can use that next X in Scrabble for a seven letter word.

Comments on Everything you’ve ever wanted to know about the alien-looking axolotl

  1. Also, don’t buy these guys at malls and other little random stores, make sure you go to a breeder or a good petstore (as Cayleigh says). Often you’ll see them for sale as baby Dinosaurs or something exotic sounding. Those often aren’t Axolotls but a much more common Tiger Salamander larval. They look very much the same and have the same care in the larval state but once they morph into adults, and they have to unlike Axolotls their care totally changes. This happened to a friend of mine.

    And I was pleasantly surprised about how good the article is. Thanks for writing it! 🙂

    PS: you have a Giant African Land Snail!??! I’m totally jealous… they’re illegal in the US. 🙁

    • Thank you very much! It’s always a bit nervous writing about pets- when living things come into the equation, there are lots of right ways and wrong ways 😉 As long as prior research gets done then these little guys are a breeze (and a pleasure) to keep 🙂
      Ooh, I didn’t know GALS were illegal as well, although I can sort of see why. It is illegal to dispose of live GALS in the wild in this country, which means if your pets get pregnant you have to squish, or freeze and dispose of the eggs, or keep all of them forever! That’s why Don lives on his own…

  2. This is a very important, very scientific sort of question:
    can you touch them? I always want to pet them, just a gentle fingertip’s brush down their sides. Is that okay? Will they bite at you?

    • You can’t really touch them, as it will damage their slime coat. They may bite, but they don’t have teeth; just a bony ridge. It feels a bit like sandpaper. It’s more startling than painful.

    • The temptation to touch them is huge, because they are so cute! Newtgirl is right though, it’s not very good for them, and they’re quite likely to freak out and zoom around the tank if you try it. I’ve been bit by one of them once, when I was feeding one of the others Etrigan came up and tried to take the food from my hand, but nipped me instead 🙂 Not painful!

  3. WHY, California?! WHY?! I just got to the end of this article and am incredibly sad. I live in California and I WANT THIS LITTLE ALIEN GUY! I did check the interwebs and it appears that they are indeed illegal in California. Someone please get one of these little guys as a pet and send me pictures every day, please.

  4. Also Dr. Shrunk from the animal crossing franchise is an axolotl. Just some trivia for ya.

  5. I’ve been keeping and breeding axolotls for over a decade now. I’ve had upwards of 1,000 in my house before. That seems like so many when I type it out…

    They’re awesome!

    • Wowsers, that’s impressive! Please do say if there’s anything wrong in the article, or something really exciting I’ve missed out, I’m nothing more than a happy amateur

  6. I cannot believe no one else has posted this yet:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MxA0QVGVEJw

    Warning, it will get stuck in your head.

    We have axolotls in our Herp department. The thing we found was that we needed a chiller for the tank; otherwise it got too warm for them. Temps are important, but where you keep your tank may help/hinder good temp control.

  7. Fabulous. I love axolotl’s. Maybe after we move we could expand fish tank land. 2 large goldfish in 1 tank – 6 loaches in the other. Nice article on how to look after them.

    My neighbour’s little boy had sooty’s learn the alphabet with animals – A is for axolotl. Not the easiest thing to try to say when you’re 2/3.

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