Axolotls have a good claim to being one of the world’s original exotic pets, having been kept in captivity since the early 19th Century and with a lifespan of 15 years or more – and even 25 years has been known – they make interesting and long-lived companions.
An entirely aquatic species of salamander, the axolotl (Ambystoma mexicanum) originally came from Lakes Xochimilco and Chalco in Mexico but today they are officially listed as an endangered species – captive breeding since 1800 having saved the animal from extinction.
Unusual BiologyAxolotls are an unusual form of salamander – most of the other members of the Ambystoma clan metamorphose normally from a water-dwelling tadpole into a land living adult. The axolotl, by contrast, remains aquatic and although it grows four sturdy legs, it retains its tail-fin and gills, getting its oxygen out of the water throughout its life, and breeding while it is itself, strictly speaking, still immature – a state known to biologists as neoteny. Very occasionally, some axolotls spontaneously metamorphose into fully land-living and perfectly normal salamanders.
The “wild” form is olive-green coloured, with camouflaging speckles but a further four colurs are known – black, brown, golden and albino. The most commonly seen on sale tends to be the albino form, with a pale pink body, darker eyes and bright red feathery gills.
Housing AxolotlsSince these animals are wholly aquatic, they need a suitably sized aquarium; commonly sold as youngsters, fully grown axolotls can reach 12 inches (30cm) or more, so they need a bit of space as they get older! They can be kept together, but they do sometimes behave aggressively to one another, which can result in toes or limbs being nipped off; although they will regenerate these missing bits, it’s probably best to keep axolotls individually.
A single animal will do well in a tank measuring 24 x 15 x 12in (60 x38 x30cm). Gravel makes a good floor covering, but make sure you use stones that are too big to be swallowed, since axolotls like to root about looking for food and accidentally ingested gravel can cause health problems. An under-gravel or box filter can often help keep the water in good condition, but remember that these animals come from fairly still waters, so don’t have too violent a flow in the tank.
Their native home is quite cool, so they are more like goldfish to cater for – a temperature of 10-20 degrees C being ideal (50-68 F) and they really do not tolerate conditions much above 25 degrees C (77 F) at all well – so keep your tank out of direct sunlight!
Food and FeedingAxolotls are carnivorous and will accept a range of foods including invertebrates and even pieces of meat – although whatever you provide will have to be small enough to fit into their mouths in one piece, since they cannot chew their food particularly effectively. They are unfussy eaters and will happily eat anything of appropriate size – so the likes of bloodworms, tubifex and small earthworms will all be accepted with relish.
Feeding small amounts every couple of days is probably the best approach – but be guided by your pet – and any uneaten food should be removed promptly to help keep the tank clean. Some axolotl keepers like to feed in the evening or night-time to replicate the animal’s natural behaviour; they seem to be more active under these conditions and it can be a useful way of tempting a reluctant eater to start feeding.
Axolotls are certainly striking looking creatures, whichever colour-form you choose. They aren’t to everyone’s liking, but they have a long history of being kept – and bred – in captivity, so clearly they have their fans! Few animals couple such an unusual life history with such an undemanding set of requirements as the axolotl – and since they’re endangered in their native home, you’ll be doing your bit for conservation by keeping one. These rather strange amphibians clearly have a lot going for them – it’s no wonder they are such a popular exotic pet.