Saturday, February 10, 2018

Axolotl Care Sheet: Housing, Feeding, and Tank Mates!

Axolotl care guide covering aquarium requirements, diet, and tank mates
(Skip to the end to view the 8-minute video of this care guide)

Have you kept freshwater fish before but are looking for something a little unusual? Check out the axolotl! This very unique and easy exotic pet lives entirely underwater and will capture your heart like no other.
axolotl care guide

What Is an Axolotl?

The axolotl (or Ambystoma mexicanum) is a completely aquatic salamander and never loses those fluffy external gills. It comes from a couple of high altitude freshwater lakes in Mexico, but unfortunately is probably extinct in wild due to human activities. However, because of their amazing regenerative powers, they are highly prolific in scientific research labs and now the pet industry. Most axolotls reach their full size in 1.5 to 2 years, growing to an average length of 9 to 12 inches. I've heard they can get up to 10 years in age.

Where Can I Buy an Axolotl?

You can find them occasionally in exotic pet or fish stores, but I like to look for reputable breeders on Facebook groups and forums. Just don't forget that axolotls are illegal in certain states like California, so do your research. I didn't know any better and went with the first local breeder I found on Craigslist. You want to buy an axolotl at least 3 inches long, and the cost will range anywhere from $20 to $100+ depending on the coloration or pattern. Here are some of the most common types:

Common axolotl coloration types: wild type, albino, leucistic, melanoid
Common axolotl color types

Your axolotl may also come with the gene for green fluorescent protein (GFP) – introduced from scientists splicing in jellyfish DNA – which causes their skin to glow green under black or blue light. It's not harmful to axolotls and can be inherited through breeding.

GFP leucistic axolotl glowing green under black light or blue lighting
Green fluorescent protein (GFP) in a leucistic axolotl

How Do I Set up an Axolotl Aquarium?

For tank size, I personally would recommend 20 gallons for the first axolotl and 10 gallons for each additional one. I started off with two juveniles in a 20 gallon, but when they got closer to adult size, the waste load was waaay too much for my Aquaclear 50 filter to handle. Make sure you have excellent filtration but low flow – you may need a spray bar or baffle to lower the current.

Axolotls like low light (comes from having eyes on the top of their heads and no eyelids) and would greatly appreciate hiding spots or other shadowed areas to hangout in. Aquarium décor and fake plants are just fine. If you're going to try live plants, pick hardier ones because your axolotl may try to uproot them or sit on them like a favorite recliner.

Axolotl sitting on an anubias congensis
My axolotl is absolutely loving/crushing this poor anubias congensis

Finally, most people recommend bare bottom, fine sand, or slate tiles for substrate. Axolotls are known to swallow gravel or smaller rocks, which some people say causes gut impaction while others say it aids with digestion and/or helps control buoyancy. So do your research.

What Water Conditions Do Axolotls Need?

Like most freshwater fish, axolotls need dechlorinated water and a cycled tank. pH can range from 6.5 to 8.0, but in general they prefer harder, more alkaline water. Water changes on a weekly basis (or more) are recommended, but it totally depends on your tank size and filtration. Just remember that axolotls are extremely messy creatures. 💩

How Do I Cool Down My Axolotl Tank?

Coming from high altitude regions, your axolotl will do best in cold temperatures ranging from 60-68°F. I had my axolotls in the low 70's (based on Internet research) and they were not happy. Get a good thermometer with an alarm that will let you know if the water ever gets too warm.

To cool down the tank, I covered three sides of my tank with reflective foil insulation and used a small USB fan to blow across the water surface, causing significant cooling by evaporation. That means your aquarium will need either a screen top or no lid at all. This method is a lot more reliable than using frozen bottles of water and is cheaper and has a smaller footprint than a chiller.

Check out more cooling options here and detailed instructions for using the reflective foil insulation.

The foil insulation is barely noticeable, and any fan works well for evaporative cooling.

What Do I Feed My Axolotl?

Axolotls are carnivorous and will actively snap at anything in front of their faces. They only have little stumps for teeth, so they tend to suck up food like a vacuum. Younger axolotls will eat live foods (like blackworms or microworms) and frozen foods (like daphnia, brine shrimp, and bloodworms). As they grown in size, you can feed them larger worms (like red wigglers or cut-up nightcrawlers from fishing bait stores or Walmart) and soft sinking pellets (like Hikari Carnivore Pellets or Lexolotls pellets). Variety in diet is key.

Leucistic axolotl eating a red wiggler
Do I have something in my teeth?

Feed your axolotls every day when they're younger, and then slow down to every 2 to 4 days when they're older. They'll generally stop eating when they're full. Aim for the axolotl's abdomen to be about as wide as its head.

What Tank Mates Can I Keep with My Axolotl?

Unfortunately, fish like to nibble on axolotl gills (since they look like worms), and axolotls like to, well, eat fish. You might be able to keep some shrimp or white cloud minnows in the aquarium as live food. In general, people recommend a species-only tank... with some caveats. Juvenile axolotls less than 6 inches long are cannibalistic and may nip off their roommate's body parts. Also, try to keep adult males and females apart so that your females aren't exhausted by overbreeding.

Juvenile leucistic axolotl with left hand eaten by a sibling
Yeah my brother ate my hand, but it's cool... I've got Deadpool's regenerative DNA in me!

Overall Rating for Axolotls

rating axolots as a pet
In general, axolotls are pretty easy to source in the US and don't cost as much as most other exotic pets (although they are more expensive than most freshwater fish). They're pretty hardy because of their crazy regenerative properties. I rated them lower on ease of care and difficulty level because a) it's harder to keep the water cold and b) there's not a lot of good information out there on keeping axolotls since they're newer to the pet industry. And finally, their appearance is super cute and unique! Overall, would I keep them again? That's a definite thumbs up!

Have you ever kept a pet axolotl before? What did you like or dislike about them?

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