Axolotl Tank Keeping Guide

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Axolotls are unusual and fun pets to own. These cute little critters are lively and curious, even interacting and engaging with their owners.

But is an Axolotl a fully aquatic animal, or do they need to live in a terrarium with a solid landmass and dense plantings? And are Axolotls fish, reptiles, or amphibians?

Keep reading to learn how to care for these unusual, fascinating pets.

What Are Axolotls?

So, let’s dispel a couple of popular myths about the Axolotl. 

These creatures are not fish or reptiles. The Axolotl or Ambystoma mexicanum is an aquatic salamander classified as an amphibian. However, unlike other salamander species, Axolotls never morph into land-dwellers, spending their entire lives in water, even though they have fully-formed legs.

These amazing creatures come from Mexico and are sometimes called Mexican Walking Fish. Sadly, wild populations of these creatures have been severely depleted by development, tourism, and pollution, and they are now categorized as critically endangered on the IUCN Red List. Consequently, pretty much all the specimens that you find for sale in fish stores and online are captive-bred.

How Long Do Axolotls Live?

The average lifespan for a captive Axolotl is around ten years, although they can live longer, with some owners reporting that their pet survived for 20 years. However, that’s the exception rather than the rule.

These creatures are quite sensitive to poor water conditions, and if not cared for properly in a well-maintained tank, their lifespan is considerably shorter.

What Do Axolotls Look Like

These creatures are unusual and quirky in appearance, which is one of the reasons they are so popular as pets.

The animal is a cross between a tadpole and a fully-formed salamander, with a long, slim body and four thin legs. The Axolotl’s tail is effectively a kind of tapering fin or paddle used for swimming. 

The animal’s head is broad with tiny black eyes. Since the creature spends its whole life underwater, the Axolotl’s eyes do not have lids, and they don’t protrude. That, combined with the creature’s upturned mouth, gives the impression that the Axolotl is constantly smiling.

One unique feature of the Axolotl that sets it apart from fish and other amphibians is the external gills. Instead of being situated flush with the animal’s sides, as you might expect, the gills are set on crown-like, feathery appendages that branch out from the back of the animal’s head. There are six “rami” in total, all of which are covered in tiny gill filaments.

Color Variations

There are lots of different colors of Axolotls available in the trade. Captive-bred Axolotls can be found in several different and beautiful color morphs, including:

  • Copper: orange with bright crimson rami
  • Melanoid: black skin and dark-colored rami
  • Leucistic: albino with pinkish-white skin and bright red rami

Wild specimens are usually mottled shades of green, brown, or gray that help the animal blend in with its surroundings.

Size

Although the specimens you see in pet stores are only a few inches long, these are juveniles. An adult Axolotl grows to an average size of around ten inches in length. In the wild environment, a fully grown adult Axolotl can measure more than 12 inches long. 

Axolotl Care Guide

Axolotl Fact Sheet Infographic

Axolotls are generally easy to care for, being hardy and not fussy about their food. 

That said, if your pet is to remain healthy, happy, and reach its full life expectancy, you do need to provide proper care and a high-quality, nutritious diet.

Tank Size

Although most hobbyists keep their Axolotl in a 10-gallon tank, we recommend that you use a 20-gallon aquarium if you have the floor space.

These animals can produce a lot of waste, so you will need to be very proactive with your water changes and tank maintenance if you only have a small aquarium. In a larger tank, the nitrates are easier to control, and the water quality tends to be more stable.

Also, your Axolotl will be more likely to achieve its full growth potential in a larger tank, and your pet will most likely live longer, too.

Despite their rather comical appearance, Axolotls are quite good jumpers, so always choose a tank with a tightly fitting lid or cover slide. Although these creatures have legs, they cannot breathe out of the water, and your pet will die if it escapes from its tank into your living room!

Water Parameters

So, Axolotls have permeable skin, which can leave them vulnerable to swings in water conditions. If you keep the water parameters stable, your pet will be fine. However, if the parameters vary greatly, Axolotls are susceptible to several potentially serious health conditions. 

The preferred water parameters for Axolotls are as follows:

  • Water temperature: 60° to 64°F
  • pH range between 6.5 and 7.5
  • Water hardness: slightly hard between 7 and 8 dKH

You should conduct regular tests on the tank water using an aquarium water testing kit. That will help you ensure that your Axolotl aquarium is in good condition and enables you to make any necessary adjustments if anything gets out of whack.

Filtration

Since the Axolotl produces lots of waste, you’ll need an efficient, powerful filtration system to keep your tank clean. However, these animals don’t appreciate strong water flow, so an external canister filtration system with an adjustable flow rate or HOB filter might be the best choice.

You’ll also need to carry out a partial weekly water change of 20% to keep nitrate levels down. Use a gravel vacuum to remove organic waste, such as feces, decaying plant matter, and uneaten food that would otherwise rot in the tank and pollute the water.

Axolotl Habitat

Axolotl

Wild Axolotls spend much of their time on the bottom of the aquarium, so you need to get the substrate type correct. These animals do best on a sand substrate, as they are known to swallow tiny pieces of gravel, which can cause intestinal blockages and serious health problems. If you use aquarium gravel, make sure that the pieces are larger than the Axolotl’s mouth and too big to swallow.

These creatures love a good hiding spot, so include caves, rocky outcrops, smooth stones, driftwood, and resin decorations in your setup. Axolotls are plant-safe, so you can include lots of lush plants, such as Java fern and Anubias, that will tolerate lower water temperatures.

Health And Disease

Axolotls are pretty hardy animals, although they can be susceptible to stress-related diseases. If you don’t keep the water in good condition, fungal and bacterial infections can be a problem.

Early signs of health problems are a loss of appetite and lethargy. Also, if your Axolotl suffers any form of skin damage, an infection can start. 

If you use gravel substrate and your Axolotl eats a piece of gravel, intestinal blockage can result. Effectively, the rock gets lodged in the animal’s gut and cannot be passed naturally. However, if you use a sandy substrate and manage your tank water correctly, your pet should remain in good health.

Diet And Nutrition

Axolotls are carnivores. In the wild environment, the creatures feed on fish, snails, and other amphibians. You can provide your pet with protein-rich foods in captivity, such as frozen brine shrimp, bloodworms, and earthworms. You can also feed them live foods, although you should avoid feeder fish as they can harbor diseases and parasites that could infect your Axolotl.

Feeding time for your Axolotl is fun, if a little time-consuming. The easiest way to feed your pet is by using tweezers or long forceps. Simply drop the food close to the animal so that it can see it, and your pet should readily eat the offering.

How Often Should You Feed Your Axolotl?

Axolotls need feeding only two or three times a week. That’s quite usual and healthy for these animals, and overfeeding can lead to health problems.

Behavior And Compatibility

Axolotls are great fun to watch, becoming even more lively when they have an audience, swimming around the tank, and coming up to the glass viewing panes to say, hi! However, most of the time, Axolotls are pretty laid-back dudes, content to rest on the substrate just watching the world go by.

Unfortunately, these animals are not suitable for community life. Axolotls can be quite aggressive with tank mates, and it’s not unheard of for one to eat its companions.

What Tank Mates For Axolotls?

You can’t safely keep Axolotls with any other creatures, including their own kind. Axolotls can be aggressive, and cannibalism is prevalent. Some keepers have reported that their Axolotls have lost limbs during fights with tank mates! However, amazingly, the limbs do regenerate and grow back following injury. Needless to say, we recommend that you keep your Axolotl in solitary splendor to remove the risk of any damage or injury to anything else in the tank.

Can Axolotls Live Out Of Water?

No! Although your Axolotl has legs and looks as though it would do fine on land, you cannot remove your pet from his aquarium.

We recommend that you never handle an Axolotl unless it’s absolutely necessary. These animals are incredibly delicate, having cartilage rather than bone, which makes them prone to injuries.

If you do need to remove your pet from his tank, do so very carefully and use a fine mesh fish net for the job. These feisty little guys can be tricky to catch, but you must always use a net and never try to grab your Axolotl with your hands.

When transferring your Axolotl from its tank for any reason, make sure that the animal is not out of the water for more than a few seconds.

Breeding

Breeding Axolotls in captivity is extremely challenging and not recommended for a beginner. The main reason for that is the aggressive behavior of these creatures.

Availability

Axolotls are often available in fish stores, and you can usually find them for sale online, too. The most common variety you’ll find in the trade is the white albino version, and these are the cheapest to purchase.

Final Thoughts

The Axolotl is an endangered species of aquatic salamander. These amphibians make great pets and are relatively easy to care for, provided that you create a suitable environment, keep the water pristine, and feed your Axolotl a balanced, high-quality meaty diet.

Do you keep an Axolotl? Have you found any species that can live with it peacefully? Tell us about your Axolotl and, if you have any questions, ask them in the comments box below.

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