Axolotl (Ambystoma mexicanum) Care Sheet
Axolotls (Ambystoma mexicanum) are sometimes referred to as Mexican salamanders or Mexican walking fish (though they are amphibian) and are a neotenic salamander that is closely related to the Tiger Salamander. Unlike other amphibians, axolotls reach adulthood without undergoing metamorphosis. Most species of salamander start out in the water, go through metamorphosis ending up on land, and then head back to the water to breed. Not the axolotl. Most axolotls will never go through metamorphosis in captivity and will remain in their larval form, equipped with fins and gills versus a complete metamorphosis that would include limbs and developed lungs for terrestrial life. (Axolotls in the larval form do have rudimentary lungs equipped to gulp air from the waters surface.) Complete metamorphosis can be forced upon the animal with the use of special chemicals that you will have to research. Forcing your axolotl to become terrestrial can have a negative impact on their lifespan and is considered extremely stressful on them.
Lake Xochimilcoand and Lake Chalco in central Mexico were the only native habitat of the axolotl. Lake Chalco no longer exists and Lake Xochimilcoand has become a series of canals and now houses African tilapia and Asian carp (introduced species), both of which compete for the axolotls primary food and feed upon the axolotls' young. Axoltls found anywhere else have been introduced.
Temperament - Handling
You should only handle your axolotl out of necessity. Human skin contains natural oils that could damage the slime coat of your axolotl. Any removal of their slime coat would make them more susceptible to disease. If you must move your axolotl for whatever reason, it is best to try and coax your axolotl into a small container and transfer it that way. This process will eliminate the contact between your hands and your axolotl.
Note: Whenever you need to place your hands inside of your axolotls tank make sure they are clean and clear of soap residue, lotions and perfumes or other chemicals.
Habitat - Enclosure
Axolotls are not a demanding species and can be easily housed in comparison to other amphibian species. For the average enthusiast, a sufficient (minimum) size enclosure would be a 10 gallon aquarium for a single adult. A cost effective means of supplying more space for your axolotl would be to use a Rubbermaid tote with a larger footprint than that of a 10 gallon aquarium, which typically measures 20" long x 10" wide x 12" high. As with most animals, larger habitats are always recommended to make the housed animal as comfortable as possible and to provide more cover.
A basic axolotl enclosure would include:
- A Cover (Aquarium Lid | Custom)
- Artificial Plants
- Hide Locations
- Ambient Light
- Bare Bottom (No Substrate)
There is no filtration being used with this set-up and this requires frequent water changes to prevent the build-up of toxic ammonia which is produced as a result of the waste product secreted by the axolotl.
An advanced axolotl enclosure could include:
- A Cover (Aquarium Lid | Glass Lid | Custom)
- Filtration System (Discussed Further Below)
- Aquarium Lighting
- Live or Artificial Plants
- Hide Locations
- Tank Decor (Rocks | Artificial Items)
- Substrate (Sand | Large Gravel | Eco-Complete)
The above set-up is typically chosen by people who are displaying their axolotl in a prominent location in their home. These set-ups are normally larger and include live plants and decor that make the enclosure aesthetically pleasing as a centerpiece of the room.
Your tank size will be determined by the number of axolotls you will be housing. Based on the requirements for a single adult (10 gallons), you should attempt to add as many gallons for each adult added to your collection.
If you are willing to do frequent water changes, a filtration system does not need to be used. If you are like me and do not want to do water changes as frequently, keep reading.
The type of filtration system you use will likely be determined by what you already have or the funds you are willing to spend. There are several options to choose from that can maintain your tank. The idea is to match the filter to the amount of water volume that you have, while also attempting to eliminate water flow inside the tank, which results in stress with this species.
Most back wall filters create a "waterfall" affect as they return the filtered water back into the tank. This return of water needs to be dispersed, as it creates a water flow that will stress your axolotl. You can disperse the water return by placing large rocks and stones in strategic locations that forces the water to disperse before re-entering the tank. These items would need to be implemented and secured before you were to add the axolotls. This process can be difficult to set-up adequately. A more efficient means of returning the water without disrupting the water flow would be to use spray bars. Spray bars release a trickle or mist affect which cause minimal water disruption. You can locate instructions online for creating your own spray bars.
You do not need to use a substrate in your set-up if you do not wish to. Some claim that glass aquariums cause "gripping" issues. (This is not an issue with plastic housing.) This could lead to stress, so it is suggested that some sort of substrate is used if you are utilizing a glass enclosure.
Substrates that can be used include large gravel that can't be accidentally ingested, causing a blockage. Fine sand is used a lot as it is aesthetically pleasing and can be easily passed through the digestive system if ingested. (Particulate substrates are never 100% safe as other factors also play a role in digestion.) Large pieces of slate or other smooth stone can also be used. Elaborate set-ups can include a substrate such as Eco-Complete. Eco-Complete is designed for use with live plants, which are discussed below. If you have a strong desire to use a colored gravel that could be ingested, you could go the extra mile and affix it directly to the tanks floor with aquarium sealant. You will need to put an even coat on the bottom and make sure to press the stones into it. This could also be done using a piece of fiberglass screen. You would need to cut the screen to the dimensions of your tank floor. Then you can adhere the gravel to the screen, creating a removable mat that can be taken out for cleaning. Aquarium sealant should always be allowed to cure thoroughly before water is added.
Live plants look stunning in a naturalistic setting. Your axolotls may not agree and will effectively uproot most plants that are placed in their tank. There are a few tricks that can be administered to prevent this from happening though.
The simplest trick is to use floating plants. Floating plants are attractive and since they have no locking root system, they can't be uprooted.
Slate, buried beneath the substrate can prevent uprooting by attaching the base of the plant using string to the slate. This will make it difficult for the plant to be uprooted since the slate itself is weighted and will be cover with a layer of substrate.
You can plant your vegetation in small potting cups that can then be decorated with rocks and substrate to hide the pot.
You can also have your plants grow "through" pieces of driftwood. You can drill a hole into your driftwood that will be sitting on the bottom of the tank and can insert the plant through the hole you created, allowing the root system to be inside the substrate with the plants base reaching through the hole.
There are a number of ways to prevent plants from being uprooted and a little ingenuity will go a long ways into achieving your goals.
Axolotls are carnivores and should be fed a diet that include animal protein, even if it is a commercial food item. Typical prey items fed to axolotls include earthworms, bloodworms and blackworms. Some feed commercially available food items such as trout pellets and sinking salmon pellets. While bloodworms and blackworms are ideal staple items, adding the occasional commercial food item and organically collected earthworms will help ensure that your axolotl is getting all of its required nutrients.
Any prey collected from the outdoors poses the risk of parasite introduction and disease. Bloodworms and blackworms can be purchased frozen at many pet stores or online. You could breed your own earthworms at home easily. Commercial diets are also available online or at your local pet store.
Most axolotl enthusiasts maintain their enclosures at room temperature, between 50-68°. Maintaining these temperatures is normally easy with the exception being the summer months, when temperatures in the room they are being housed can rise. Custom screen lids can help keep water cooler by allowing the water to evaporate instead of building up heat. You can find a solution for creating your own custom screen lid here: Custom Screen Lid If you allow your axolotls tank to become cooler than the recommended temps, it will become sluggish and may stop feeding. Extended periods of inadequate temperatures can have fatal consequences or lead to illness.
Allowing the tank to become to warm will create stress, lower the immune system and could also lead to illness and death. During the summer months you may need to place an air conditioner in your axolotls room if the temperatures are rising.
Some people like to keep their homes cool or house their axolotls in their basement. if you find that your tank needs additional heating for these reasons, you can use a basic aquarium heater set at 65°.
Axolotls do not require any special lighting. If your set-up is designed for display purposes, an ordinary aquarium hood and fluorescent aquarium bulb can be used. If you are using live plants in the tank, lighting is required.
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Author: Richard Brooks
All Images © Leiren McKenzie