Axolotl Care For Beginners (The Complete Care Sheet)

The Axolotl is a very unique amphibian from Mexico.

This aquatic salamander is like no other salamander that you have ever seen. Most salamanders move on to dry land as they grow up but this unique species stays in the water.

Axolotls are best known for their unique appearance and funny personality.

However, they are also not for everybody.

They require special care and handling throughout their ten year lifespan.

If you want to keep an Axolotl in your aquarium then there is a lot that you will need to learn. In our comprehensive guide below we cover everything you need to create the best home for your first Axolotl.

Axolotl

Axolotl 101

Ambystoma mexicanum

The Axolotl (Ambystoma mexicanum) is a unique salamander that comes from the Ambystomatidae family.

This family also includes several different species of mole salamanders and giant salamanders.

Unlike other salamanders, the Axolotl does not move onto dry land once it grows up. The Axolotl will stay in its aquatic larval state for its entire life and will not undergo metamorphosis the way that other amphibians do.

This is not a good pet for children or beginners.

They need a carefully maintained setup in order to be healthy.

These salamanders do not get along with fish or other amphibians and are even aggressive with their kind.

Despite their flaws they are popular pets and have earned a cult following among both aquarists and herpetology enthusiasts.

Hobbyists have fallen in love with their amusing, playful attitudes. These creatures are always up to something and you never know what they will do next.

Before you commit to an Axolotl you will need to check your state and local regulations. In California, New Jersey, Maine, and Virginia, this species is illegal to keep.

Breeders and specialists are the best place to buy a healthy specimen, but they do not come cheap. You should expect to pay at least $70, but many breeds are over $150.

Key Facts:

  • Experience Required: Freshwater Fishkeeping.
  • Nicknames: Mexican Walking Fish.
  • Color Forms: Wild Type, Copper, Albino, Pink, Black, Mosaic.
  • Size: 6-10 inches.
  • Tank Size: Minimum 25 gallon.
  • Tank Temperature: 55°F to 70°F.
Pros

  • Incredibly unique
  • Does not need special lighting or heat
  • Very active and fun to watch
  • Lots of possibilities for aquascaping and habitat design
Cons

  • Illegal to own in some states
  • Not compatible with communities
  • Eats anything that fits in its mouth
  • Can swallow dangerous foods or objects

Axolotl Tank Setup

Axolotl Care Substrate

This animal’s natural range is restricted to Lake Xochimilco in Mexico City.

The average water temperature in this area is about 60 to 65°F, but may dip higher or lower with the seasons. It rarely goes above 70°F.

Axolotls are often found hiding under leafy plants or rocks and logs. In many cases their frilly gills help them to blend in with the vegetation.

You will need at least a 25 gallon tank for a single Axolotl.

The ideal water parameters are:

  • Temperature: 55-70°F (aim for 65°F)
  • pH: 6.5-7.5
  • Water Hardness: 10-15 dGH

You should only use soft sand as substrate. Large gravel, rocks, and pebbles can be swallowed which can cause intestinal blockages. You will also need an internal or external filter to keep the aquarium clean, but make sure that it generates only a very low amount of flow.

The Axolotl differs from other amphibians in that it does not need any strong lights or heat lamps. Your room light or a dimly lit bulb will do just fine. Just keep the intensity at 2.5 watts per gallon or less.

Salamanders like to shelter under rocks and logs, and this one is no different. Soft rocks and hollowed out logs provide excellent hiding spots. Natural decorations are the best but you can also use plastic castles and other fun toys to decorate your tank.

The Axolotl will not pay very much attention to them.

When picking out some good plants for your Axolotl you should focus on species that can live in low light and low water temperatures.

Anubias, Java Ferns, Hornwort, and Cabomba make great rooted plants for this temperate lake biotope. For a truly authentic look you can try floating Salvinia, Water Lettuce, and Duckweed. If you have time then you can also consider a Paludarium.

Tank Parameter Requirement
Minimum Tank Size 25 Gallons
Tank Type Freshwater planted
Temperature 55-70°F
pH 6.5-7.5
Hardness 10-15 dGH
Flow Light
Substrate Sand

Axolotl Care Guide

How To Care For Axolotl

This is definitely a pet for experienced aquarists.

Learning how to care for an Axolotl can take years.

They are very sensitive to their environment and need a lot of meticulous cleaning and maintenance.

The tank must be completely cycled before you introduce your Axolotl. New water must be prepared with water conditioner and mineral salts. Then, you will need to perform a 25 to 50% water change on a weekly basis, clearing out ammonia, nitrates, and other waste products to amounts below 20 ppm.

Their substrate must also be vacuumed and rinsed, and decorations must be cleaned to prevent fouling.

One key thing to look out for with Axolotl care is impaction.

This is when an Axolotl swallows something that is too large for it to pass or digest (e.g. large rocks or gravel). This will impair their ability to eat, digest food, or pass a bowel movement. If they have not had any bowel movements in over 2 days, then a blockage is the likely cause.

Impaction can only be treated by surgery. You will need to find a qualified exotics or aquatics vet that specializes in amphibian care.

Another thing to pay attention to is their gills.

They can turn pale or wrinkled because of a bacterial infection, a fungal infection, or poor water quality. Most infections can be fixed with a medication regimen or by giving your Axolotl a salt bath.

Axolotl Diet

Feeding An Axolotl

Axolotls eat almost everything that moves.

Their favorite foods are worms, insect larvae, and gastropods.

Although it will eat just about anything in the wild, its diet in the aquarium should be more selective.

Most of their diet should be made up of worms (especially earthworms and nightcrawlers). If earthworms are not available then bloodworms and black and white worms work well.

In addition to worms you can feed them brine shrimp and small snails.

You can also offer frozen Grass Shrimp or Ghost Shrimp as treats. You should not give shrimp as live prey as they may injure your Axolotl.

These amphibians can be fed every other day.

They do not have any teeth so you must cut the prey up into small enough portion sizes for them to swallow safely. Pinch the prey between a pair of long forceps or tweezers and your hungry Axolotl will eat it right up.

What Food Can They Eat?

These predators will eat anything, but that does not mean they should. Here is a list of safe foods for your Axolotl:

  • Earthworms
  • Nightcrawlers
  • Bloodworms
  • Black and white worms
  • Feeder snails
  • Brine shrimp
  • Frozen shrimp
  • Mealworms (treat)
  • Mosquito larvae (treat)

Behavior

Axolotls will spend most of their time scurrying around the substrate. Occasionally you will find them in the middle and upper levels of the tank.

You can use rocks, plants, and logs to create a little maze for them to explore. The larger the tank is the more active they will be.

They are docile and timid when kept on their own, but they will become more aggressive in the presence of other animals. When an axolotl is distressed or sick it will spend most of its time out of sight.

If your Axolotl refuses to come out of hiding, it might be sick or something might be wrong with its habitat. This can include poor water quality, too much light, or the presence of ammonia and other toxins.

Can Axolotls Harm You?

Lots of salamanders are harmful to touch because of their toxic secretions from their skin.

However, this is not a problem with Axolotls.

These animals are not toxic and they do not behave aggressively with humans. They do not nip or bite, and are more likely to hide if you get too close.

Handling your Axolotl is more dangerous for it than it is for you. Their skin is very sensitive and touching it can give them a bacterial infection.

Being removed from the water can also cause your Axolotl to dry out. Its body is also very delicate, so dropping or mishandling it can be harmful or fatal. If you need to handle it then use a small net to pick it up for no longer than a few seconds.

Can You Take An Axolotl Out Of The Water?

Axolotls should never be taken out of water.

When they are taken out of the water their bodies can dry out very quickly. Exposure to dry air also leaves them at risk of bacterial infections, which they can contract through their skin. Amphibians also breathe through their skin which is another reason they should not be touched.

If you have to remove your Axolotl from the water then use a small net to handle them and make sure to place them in a new tank within a few seconds.

Under the water is the best place for these fully aquatic amphibians.

Axolotl Size and Appearance

Axolotl Care

Axolotls are well known for their unusual appearance.

Their distinguishing features are their tiny legs and the 6 frilly gills on the sides of their head.

Unlike other salamanders their appearance does not change between the larval and adult stage.

Axolotls have four skinny legs for walking and a long tail for swimming.

Their head is wide and shaped like a spade, with tiny beady eyes and a mouth that looks as though it is always grinning. Their gills are highly visible and look like a fluffy crown around their head. Ideally you want your Axolotl to have tall and fluffy gills. The colors should not be too pale or too dark, but slightly darker than their body.

Most captive specimens are pale pink or white in color. In the wild they are grey or brown, with a mottled pattern that helps them blend in with the substrate around them.

Axolotls can grow up to 15 inches in the wild but usually only reach 10 inches in an aquarium.

To tell the difference between the males and the females you just need to look at their underside. Males have a cloaca that forms a bump between the rearmost pair of legs and the tail.

Common Colors

There are many different Axolotl color morphs available. Here is a list of some of the most common:

Wild Type: The wild type variety is their natural coloration. They are stony grey or tan with a mottled pattern.

Black: The black or melanoid color morph is also known as blue. These come in a deep black or charcoal grey color, and may be solid, spotted, or mottled.

Pink or Leucistic: Leucistic Axolotls come in shades of pale pink with black beady eyes and a translucent tail. This is one of the most popular color morphs in the hobby.

Albino: Albino specimens can be solid white, pale yellow, or pink. Unlike leucistic specimens they have white or pink eyes.

Mosaic: Crossbreeding a leucistic and wild type specimen produces the mosaic color morph. They are a mix of black, white, and grey.

Copper: This is a golden orange color that is bred from the albino color morph.

Tank Mates

Axolotls should not have any tank mates at all.

In the wild they live a solitary life and prey on any fish or invertebrates that can fit into their mouths.

There are several reasons why you should never keep your Axolotl in a community tank:

  1. They exhibit predatory behavior to others.
  2. Axolotls will eat anything small enough to fit in their mouth.
  3. They are known to behave aggressively when around others.

If you try to pair them with larger fish then they can be eaten or injured. Even non predatory fish can distress your Axolotl into hiding for most of the day.

You must also avoid keeping them with other amphibians or reptiles. They often have very different tank requirements and water parameters, and often have incompatible personalities.

Even keeping them with other Axolotls is risky.

These creatures will bite, chase, harass, and bully each other. They might even take off a leg, a gill, or a bit of tail from their tank mates.

In the wild they are known for cannibalizing their own kind – even mated pairs may do this once spawning is over!

Your Axolotl does not need any tank mates and will do just fine on its own. In fact, they are at their happiest when they are alone.

Breeding Axolotls

Axolotl Breeding

It is possible to breed Axolotls in the aquarium but this should not be attempted until you have at least a few years of experience with them.

To bond a male and female pair you should introduce them to each other at around 6 to 12 months of age. Separate the pair immediately if any aggressive behavior occurs. If the male is interested in the female he will poke her and nudge her with his snout. The two will then engage in an elaborate mating dance.

The male will swim in circles around the female, rubbing against her and even lifting her up. He will leave his sperm on the rocks and in the substrate. To collect the sperm the female will rub against it.

After she has collected the sperm the female should be separated from the male to prevent cannibalism. She will lay up to 1000 eggs about a day later.

These eggs should be collected and placed in an 8 inch fishbowl or a 10 gallon tank equipped with a sponge filter. The water temperature should be between 60 and 65°F.

It takes up to 3 weeks for the eggs to hatch and the larvae will emerge looking like tiny versions of the parents.

They will survive off of their yolk sacs for about 2 days, after which they must be fed larval brine shrimp. When the offspring reach about 1 and a half inches in length you can start introducing carnivore pellets to their diet. At 4 to 6 inches they can eat smaller portions of their parents’ food.

History and First Sighting

Ambystoma mexicanum was formally discovered and classified by Shaw and Nodder in 1758. However, they were known to the Mexican people long before their formal discovery.

The story of this amazing animal dates back to the Aztecs and begins with the myth of the fire god Xolotl.

As punishment for angering Quetzalcoatl (the king of the gods) Xolotl was cursed to walk the earth as a salamander. This creature’s name is a reference to Xolotl, combined with atl, the Aztec word for water.

Eventually the two words became Axolotl.

After their formal classification they became the subject of laboratory studies involving cell and tissue regeneration. As these studies were published the creature became more popular within the general public.

By the 1950s the Axolotl had become an aquarium pet.

Hobbyists soon realized that this was no ordinary salamander as their fully aquatic nature meant they could be kept in a cold water tank. For this reason they became just as popular with aquarists as with herpetologists and terrarium keepers. Unfortunately though this surge in popularity caused problems for their wild populations.

In 1975 legislation was created to regulate harvesting but it was not enough and the species was declared extinct in the wild by 2010.

However in 2013 a small wild population was discovered in Lake Xochimilco.

The species is still the subject of ongoing efforts to restore its numbers in the wild. Most Axolotls in the aquarium hobby are now bred in captivity.

Should You Keep An Axolotl? (Summary)

Axolotl
Other Common Names: Mexican Walking Fish
Scientific Name: Ambystoma mexicanum
Family Name: Ambystomatidae
Distribution: Lake Xochimilco, Mexico
Size: 6-10 inches
Color: Grey, tan, black, white, pink, copper, albino
Care Level: Advanced
Temperament: Semi-aggressive
Lifespan: 10-15 years
Minimum Tank Size: 25 gallons
Tank Mate Compatibility: None

Although there is a lot of love for the Mexican Walking Fish, they are certainly not the right pet for every aquarist.

You will be making at least a 10 year care commitment.

Also you should not expect to keep this amphibian in a community tank. They are at their happiest when they have the whole aquarium all to themselves.

Just remember that before you actually buy an Axolotl, check your state and local laws allow it. After all, it is still a critically endangered species.

If you understand all of the components of Axolotl Care and are willing to commit, then an Axolotl may be the perfect aquarium pet for you.

Why do you want to keep an Axolotl? Let us know in the comments section below…

David Thomas Author Bio Picture
David Thomas leads the team at Everything Fishkeeping as the Editor-in-Chief. David has been keeping fish since he was a child. In his first tank he kept goldfish and since then he has kept over 30 different species. Now he has 4 separate tanks and his favorite is a 100 gallon freshwater tank with a school of Rasboras, Tetras and Loaches.