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Choosing a Mexican Axolotl

By: R.D. and Patti Bartlett

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The axolotl is a fully aquatic, Mexican representative of the mole salamander clan that has long been bred in captivity for scientific research. It is possible that because of environmental changes this species no longer exists in the wild. Unlike waterdogs – larval tiger salamanders often sold in the pet trade – the axolotl does not normally metamorphose into a land-dwelling adult.

Axolotls, known by the scientific name Ambystoma maculata, are entirely aquatic, but periodically rise to the water surface to gulp a breath of atmospheric air. Their water must be clean and free of chemicals.

Although not brightly colored, axolotls are interestingly colored. Those in the pet trade are captive bred, and they are readily available in the normal olive coloration as well as albino, leucistic, gold, and piebald morphs. A tank containing specimens of four or five colorations is quite pleasing. Axolotls attain 7 to 8 1/2 inches in length.

Axolotls are neotenic - meaning that they attain sexual maturity but remain permanent larvae. They do not metamorphose into the adult stage.

When kept in a filtered aquarium, and fed a varied diet these are very hardy, usually trouble-free amphibians suitable for beginning hobbyists, but of interest to all.

Origin and Life Span

Axolotls are native to central Mexico, but are now virtually unknown in the wild. Even in the wild, they are fully aquatic. It is not unusual for salamanders to live for more than 10 years in captivity, and life spans of 15 to 17 years are known.

Appearance

Axolotls have three pairs of bushy gills at the rear of their head. The snout is convex, the legs are rather long and slender, and they have a prominent tailfin that actually begins as a low ridge on the salamander's anterior trunk. These salamanders lack eyelids. As mentioned, axolotls are available in many colors, but it is the albino specimens that are most often seen.

At hatching the baby axolotl is about a half an inch long and albinos are almost transparent. The toes are flanged with translucent skin and the hind feet are weakly webbed.

Housing

Axolotl can be kept either in a planted or a non-planted aquarium. If in the former, you will need to provide suitable lighting to stimulate plant survival and growth. One or two axolotls can be kept in a 10-gallon tank, and three or four can live nicely in a 15- or 20-gallon tank. Darkened hiding areas are not necessary but may be used if provided.

Short of being very strongly acidic, pH of the water does not seem particularly important. The water needs to be well filtered, but even with this the tank will require periodic changing. The more and larger your axolotls, the more often the water will require changing.

The best water temperature for these axolotls is between 68 and 75 degrees Fahrenheit, but they seem well able to tolerate temperatures as low as the mid 50s (and for a short duration) as high as the low 80s.

Behavior

Axolotls are quite cold tolerant, but usually thrive in water kept at room temperature (72 to 76 F) as well. They are quite active and are voracious feeders that usually react in a frenzy when food is encountered. They will readily eat smaller tank-mates. Housing only same-size specimens together will help prevent this possibility.

Although they have gills, axolotls periodically surface to gulp a mouthful of fresh air.

Feeding

Axolotls are voracious salamanders that consume all manner of smaller pond-dwelling creatures, including smaller examples of their own kind. They find their food by sight, by scent and, perhaps, by touch.

The diet of a wild axolotl will be heavy on aquatic insects, worms, and other invertebrates. Captives eat earthworms, crickets, freshly killed minnows, tadpoles, and glass (grass) shrimp. Some individuals will eat pelleted fish foods. Uneaten food can quickly sour your water. Feed your axolotls prudently.

Handling

Treat this amphibian exactly as you would a fish. Handle it only with a soft, wet net. Scoop the salamander up in the net and cover the mouth of the net with your free hand to prevent the salamander from walking or flipping its way free. Get the axolotl back into the water as quickly as possible.

Medical Issues

Axolotls are hardy and largely trouble-free. If their water is too warm or water quality deteriorates, patches of fungus sometimes appear. Overly warm water may also cause the salamander to have difficulty submerging.

If axolotls are kept communally, injuries can occur during feeding frenzies. Among the more typical injuries, damage to or amputation of one salamander's gill stalk, leg, or piece of tailfin, can occur. Serious though these injuries may look, larval ambystomatid salamanders (which is precisely what an axolotl is) are capable of regenerating the missing members. But it is suggested that you house your axolotls individually, or at very least keep them segregated by size.
        
Aquarium fish may nip at the salamander's gills. Do not house fish and axolotls together.

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