Axolotls (Ambystoma mexicanum) are a pretty unique pet in the aquarium hobby. They are adorable and super cute. Although they are commonly known as Mexican walking fish, these creatures are not fish at all. They are actually salamanders.
Even though Axolotls are pretty hardy, they do have some specific requirements you will need to know about.
In this guide, I will share some practical tips and take you through everything you need to know on how to take care of them and should you choose Axolotls as your pets.
Quick Notes about the Axolotls
|Other Names||Axies, Water dogs, Walking Fish|
|Scientific Name||Ambystoma mexicanum|
|Tank size (minimum)||10 gallons (~40 liters)|
|Breeding||Medium – Difficult|
|Size||22 – 30 cm (~9 – 12 inches)|
|Optimal Temperature||15 – 18 °C (60 – 64 °F)|
|Optimal PH||7.4 – 7.8|
|Optimal GH||7 – 14|
|Optimal KH||3 – 8|
|Dwellers||Mid and bottom|
|Nitrate||Less than 10|
|Temperament||Peaceful (with caution)|
|Life span||up to 10 years|
|Color Form||Black, grey, white, pinkish, bronze|
Natural Habitat of the Axolotls
Axolotls are native to Mexico and are endangered in the wild due to urbanization, water pollution, and the introduction of invasive predators.
Their natural habitat is Lake Xochimilc but their numbers are dwindling due to several factors like water pollution, invasive species eating the Axolotls and their eggs, and being treated as a delicacy by Mexican locals.
The populations have decreased over time and now Axolotls tend to thrive better in aquarium settings where their environments can be controlled better.
Interesting fact: This salamander has been associated with Mexican culture as the twin of the most important Aztec god Quetzalcoatl (“Feathered serpent” or “Plumed serpent” was a primordial god of creation, a giver of life.) and inspiration for writers and philosophers.
Description of the Axolotls
Axolotls are called “Mexican Walking Fish” as a nickname. Many people call Axolotls “Axies” for short. I have heard various people call my Axolotls fish simply because they live in the water. However, as I have already said, Axolotls are salamanders and are considered amphibians. Axolotls have external gills which are basically the inverted version of our lungs.
Although there are many different colors the most common types are:
- wild type (which is a combination of greens, browns, blacks, and any other color with speckles);
- leucistic (partial loss of pigmentation, in this case, white with black eyes);
- melanoid (black or grey colored).
Full-grown Axolotls are usually 9 to 12 inches long (22 – 30 cm) and they can live to be up to 10 years old.
- They have the power to regenerate limbs which leads scientists to study them.
- Basically, an Axolotl is a tadpole of a salamander. However, unlike salamanders that start out as tadpoles that live only in the water, and then, they metamorphose and turn into a land animal, Axolotls do not completely
As a matter of fact, scientists managed to complete their transformation by using some chemicals in their experiments. Nonetheless, because Axolotls are not supposed to become terrestrial salamanders, their life span was very short.
Behavior of the Axolotls
Axolotls also have no sense of personal space. I have walked in on scenes where one Axolotl is sitting on the other Axolotl. The Axolotl being sat on could not care less and barely acknowledges the extra weight. I have also seen my Axolotls walk all over each other and use the other Axolotl as a platform to jump from.
From my experience, these creatures are very laid back and can be silly. However, they can recognize their owner’s face and routine.
Although they are not territorial and aggressive (like let’s say crayfish and most freshwater crabs), they are also not social animals and do not benefit from having a companion axolotl.
Even more, they can still become violent towards one another. In most cases, it depends on the individual character and size of the tank. In addition, they can bite each other by mistake during feeding time, therefore, it is advisable to feed them on separate corners.
Axolotls are carnivores. They are not picky and will eat almost anything that fits their mouth.
There are some foods that are a staple of the Axolotl diet and other foods that are considered snacks. Axolotls can eat:
- red wigglers,
- brine shrimp,
- blood worms,
- ghost shrimp, etc.
People also make nutritional pellets made specifically for Axolotls. The diet of hatchling Axolotls consists of brine shrimp and/or daphnia.
Note: If you are not okay with handling and chopping up a live worm (don’t worry, worms do not feel pain) and putting it in the water, well, Axolotls are not for you.
You can read more about it in my article “Feeding Guide for Axolotls”.
Keeping and Housing Axolotls
First of all, tanks should be cycled prior to adding Axolotls.
Axolotls should be kept in longer tanks due to how long they get when they are mature. Axolotls can grow to be up to 12 inches (30 cm) long. In rare cases, Axolotls can be even bigger than 12 inches!
The creatures tend to walk along the bottom of the tank. Therefore, Axolotls prefer tanks that are longer rather than higher. A good rule is to keep one Axolotl for every 10 gallons (40 liters). More space is fine. One axolotl can live in a 20-gallon tank or larger alone. However, Axolotls need at least ten gallons each. I keep two Axolotls in a 20-gallon tank.
Note: I personally have never had an Axolotl jump out of a tank, or even attempt to, but other owners have had this happen to them. So, use a nice secure lid to be safe.
After you add the Axolotls, the temperature of the tank should be 60 to 64 degrees Fahrenheit (15 – 18 C). Axolotls can survive between 50 and 70 degrees (10 – 21 C), but they prefer the lower 60’s.
Keep in mind that warm temperature is not something you can forget about. This mistake can potentially lead to a variety of diseases in Axolotls. Take it very seriously!
Optimal Water Parameters:
Ammonia: 0 ppm
Nitrites: 0 ppm
Nitrates : <10 ppm
pH: 7.4 – 7.8
General hardness (GH): 7 to 14°
Carbonate hardness (KH): 3 to 8°
Oxygen saturation: 70 to 100%
You should also have an appropriate substrate. Having no substrate is also fine but may limit their movements (they can sometimes slip around) and stress them out. However, a bare bottom tank is a lot easier to keep clean.
I tried sand in the past and the tank ended in a cloudy mess that was not habitable. The sand refused to settle to the bottom of the tank although other tank owners have used sand in their tanks with no issue. Therefore, I will still recommend trying it.
Pebble substrate should be avoided at all costs! No substrate is better than having a pebble substrate!
Personally, I leave half of my tank with no substrate and the other half has a moss mat which my Axies love. I give my Axies the choice to lay on the bare glass, their log hide, or a soft moss mat.
Axolotls do not really like light. They simply do not need it. The point is that they have very sensitive eyes and do not have the ability to close their eyes (they have no eyelids). Therefore, bright light hurts them.
If you are planning to have live plants, you have to choose low-light species that do not require much light (preferably plants that can grow and survive in ambient light).
You can read more about in my article “Top 10 Low Light Aquarium Plants. Pros and Cons”.
As long as you’ve got the filter that works great with the size of the tank you have got you will be fine.
Just make sure that the water flow is not too fast because they do not like it and tend to get a little bit freaked out.
Plants and Decorations:
Axolotls should always be given hiding places in order to prevent aggression. Anything put into the tank should be inspected for sharp edges.
I use an artificial log in order to provide a tunnel in my tank. You can also try to provide a cave-like hiding place but keep in mind that Axolotls grow to be large creatures.
Axolotls also like plants and driftwood in their tank. I use Anubias plants and Marimo Moss balls. You can also provide Java Fern, Java Moss, HornWort, Lilaeopsis, etc. Another option is to use Pothos plants. One of the most significant benefits of Pothos plants is their ability to reduce nitrate levels in the tank.
A lack of substrate will make it hard to have plants, but not impossible.
Note: Regarding plants, do your research. As I said, they should be low-light and/or floaters. Do not pick tender plants. Axolotls like to sit on them, so they will be crushed under the weight of an Axolotl trying to rest on it. Another option is to use fake plants. Just be sure that they are aquarium safe and do not have sharp edges.
Water Changes and Maintenance
Axolotls are very messy creatures and produce a lot of waste. I would say that they are waste machines. Therefore, it is important to remove it once you see it. If you do not do that right away you can bet that they will stand on it and it will go absolutely everywhere.
Tip: Use turkey basters to pick up poop or do a small siphoning after every feeding. It is also important to do weekly water changes to keep your levels proper. 1/3rd of the water should be removed weekly and replaced with fresh dechlorinated water.
Basic Tank Equipment (links to check the price on Amazon)
Axolotls take a while to form their genitals properly. What you may think is a female may turn out to be a male when their genitals have formed properly. You can’t accurately tell the sex of an Axolotl before they are a year old.
According to the study, adult Axolotls reach sexual maturity at the age of 10 to 18 months. Once axolotls reach maturity, their fingertips will start to change color. It is around this time that you can try to determine the gender of your axolotls. Lighter colored axolotls will develop black fingertips and darker colored axolotls will develop lighter colored fingertips.
Axolotl genitals are right behind their back legs underneath their tail. Males will have a swollen cloaca. This looks like a round bump. Females may have a small bumpy opening, but they will not have a swollen cloaca.
You may find out that what you thought was a female is a male when you suddenly notice that they have formed a huge bump after having no bump at all. Females also grow to be bigger than the males. Males tend to be longer and smaller.
When it came to my Axolotls, you could see the obvious gender differences. I have one male and one female Axolotl. When you look at them, you can see that the male has a huge bump and the female has nearly no bump so you can easily see the difference between the two genital types.
The female is also huge in comparison to the male. This is because females can carry eggs, while the males produce sperm to fertilize the eggs. Introducing two opposite gendered and sexually mature Axolotls for the first time may encourage mating.
Axolotl males will produce spermatophores. I call them sperm cones. They look like a clear jelly-like substance and males can produce them all over the tank. The males may try to place females onto the sperm cones in what looks like a strange dance.
A courtship routine between the male and female takes place in which the pair may make physical contact as they perform a “waltz.”
If the male succeeds, then the female will lay eggs around the tank within hours or a few days. The female will act frantic which is highly unusual of the species. Axolotls tend to barely move except during mealtime. You will see the female darting around the tank looking for places to lay her eggs. She will lay them on available plants and surfaces.
Axolotls can lay up to 1000 eggs. If you are not ready to breed your Axolotls, then keep males and females separated! Otherwise, you may end up with a ton of viable eggs- eggs that are growing in a healthy manner- that will eventually hatch.
Some eggs may not hatch if they are not viable. Many breeders sell healthy eggs before they are hatched or separate the eggs into plastic tubs until the young are old enough to ship or transport to their new owners.
Potential Problems Associated with Axolotls
Nipping or biting can be a problem between Axolotls. If there is not enough food or not enough space in a tank, then Axolotls may nip at each other. Providing adequate food and hiding places keeps your Axolotls content and acting like their normal laid-back selves.
I personally like to feed my Axolotls separately so that they don’t fight over falling food. I wait until they are at separate ends of the tank and then drop food at each end. You don’t have to do this, but it is one way to limit fighting if your Axolotls tend to fight over food.
Introducing other species into your tank with an Axolotl can also be a bad idea because many species like to nip on Axolotl gills. Axolotls can regenerate limbs, but it is best to limit exposure to danger as much as possible.
Small rocks and pebbles should also be avoided in Axolotl tanks. Axolotls can swallow rocks that are smaller than their heads. I am in numerous Facebook groups that involve Axolotl care. I have seen posts about Axolotls needing surgery in order to survive swallowing small rocks because their bodies cannot pass the rocks and they become stuck inside them. This can cause death.
You would also be surprised at the size of the rocks that Axolotls may try to swallow. I saw another post where an Axolotl had tried to swallow a rock as big as its mouth. The rock became lodged in the Axolotl’s mouth and the owner needed to seek medical attention for the animal. Pebble substrates like you see in many aquariums are extremely dangerous to this species.
Other pets are also a potential problem for Axolotls. Cats sometimes end up swatting Axolotls out of the tank or get curious about the tank water. Tank lids are great for households with other pets and can also keep your Axolotls from leaping out of the tank unexpectedly.
Temperatures being too high may also cause brain damage so the temperature should be monitored.
Axolotls and Suitable Tankmates
Axolotls are best with other Axolotls. The ideal situation for the Axolotls is a species only tank but even here there is one important rule.
DO NOT keep juveniles together. You are supposed to separate them after they get their front legs. Axolotls less than 6 inches (15 cm) are in a cannibalistic phase and may nip or bite off body parts from their tankmates.
If you are planning to add another Axolotl to your tank, be ready to separate them. Some Axolotls can be real meanies.
Axolotls can and will try to eat anything that fits their mouth. Therefore, any small fish will be eaten. Period.
At the same time, you would not want to keep them with any fish that are big and aggressive. Other species may enjoy nipping on the frilly gills of the Axolotls and hurt them. Feeder fish recommended for Axolotls are the only fish that I would recommend.
Dwarf shrimp (for example, Ghost shrimp) can be put into the tank with Axolotls. It may shock the Axolotls at first. Eventually, the ghost shrimp will become a snack for the Axolotls. So, don’t expect them to be long-term tank mates. They do make a good occasional snack though.
Do not keep Axolotls with freshwater snails as well. They will definitely try to swallow them and it can leave the axolotl impacted, killing the axolotl. Anything smaller than their head should not go in the tank. Keep in mind that anything that moves is potential prey, so a snail is just a slow-moving, huge ‘worm’ to them.
Some people say that the Pond snails and Bladder snails are to be axolotl safe as their shells don’t impact the Axolotl. Personally, I would not advise anybody to test it.
African Dwarf Frogs
Surprisingly, I have seen multiple questions on forums regarding compatibility African Dwarf Frogs and Axolotls. No, you cannot keep them together because of two reasons:
- As you have already might have guessed, Axolotls will try to eat small African Dwarf Frog.
- African Dwarf Frogs require very warm temperatures in their tanks.
People often ask, can I touch them? Can I play with them or pick them up?
The short answer is no. Axolotls are fully aquatic creatures. They will never leave the water in their life. So this means that you can’t pick them up and they are not pets you can play with. They simply cannot survive outside of water for a long time.
However, if you need to transfer them from one aquarium to another, use a soft net, covering the opening to ensure Axolotl does not get out.
Do not touch them with bare hands unless there is no option. In this case, they should be absolutely clean and wet. Sterilize your hands. Keep in mind that any residue on our hands (even soap) Axolotl will absorb through the skin.
In addition, they have a slime coat and it can be damaged from excessive touching. Ideally, you need to use gloves. They don’t really like it that much so I would leave touching to a very minimum.
Axolotls can be owned as pets, but their endangered status makes Axolotls illegal to own or ship to some states. Most states allow owning Axolotls but there are some exceptions. It’s important to check if Axolotls are legal to own in your state BEFORE purchasing the Axolotls.
You can buy from breeders or online. I personally bought my Axolotls from breeders on an Axolotl care Facebook Group. They were then shipped to me with one-day delivery to ensure a live delivery.
Axolotls are not for beginners. The larger tank size alone makes water changes much harder. Along with monitoring your water parameters, you also must closely monitor the temperatures of the tank.
Overheating can cause brain damage in Axolotls and too cold temperatures can cause Axolotls to move less. Some people may also need to buy aquarium chillers depending on their climate which are expensive. I would advise owners to be intermediate level or higher.