There are around 760 extant salamander species, and many of them are considered endangered, or vulnerable.
The axolotl is maybe one one of the most iconic, but mysterious salamanders.
This article will cover the aquatic homes that axolotls live in, and why protecting their habitats is essential more than ever.
Unlike a variety of other salamanders the axolotl stays in its aquatic form for their entire adult hood, and can even breed in this stage.
The appearance, diet, and behavior of the axolotl are all suited to fit their aquatic environments.
Let’s take a look at these amazing axolotls and what you should know about the habitats they live in.
What is an Axolotl?
The axolotl (Abystoma mexicana) is a type of amphibian, which also includes frogs, newts, and toads.
These salamanders descended from the tiger salamander (Ambystoma tigrinum), around 10,000 years ago, and is a more distant relative to the spotted salamander (Ambystoma maculatum).
The Ambystomatidae family that the axolotls is a part of is divided into the genus of mole salamanders (Ambystoma), and the giant salamander (Dicamptodon) genus.
There are around 32 species of mole salamanders, which live across North America, which include the axolotl.
The axolotl was named after the Aztec God Xolotl, which was the god of lighting, fire, death, and deformities.
The God Xolotl is also associated with dogs, and in Aztec “atl” is the word for dogs, which is why some call these amphibians water dogs.
It is also believed in Aztec culture that God Xolotl could take the form of the axolotl.
In the wild axolotls are an extremely rare species, considered critically endangered in their habitats.
As pets these salamanders are much more common than in the wild, and are one of the most popular amphibian pets.
The Natural Habitats of Axolotls
The majority of salamander species live in North and Central America, which includes the axolotl.
The axolotl is native to Mexico, but only lives in Lake Xochimilco, located in the Valley of Mexico.
Axolotl also lives in the nearby canals and waterways around southern Mexico City.
These salamanders were also found once in Lake Chalco, but this lake is no longer present since it was drained in the 1970s to prevent the region from flooding.
Axolotls are considered lentic, which means it lives in still, freshwater habitats.
The temperature in Lake Xochimilco typically stays under 20 °C (68 °F), but in the winter the water temperatures may change to be around 6–7 °C (43–45 °F), or even lower.
Amphibians all start from eggs in the water, but after a while most become juveniles, then adults that leave the water.
The axolotl is a unique amphibian since it stays in the water all of its life.
They retain their juvenile traits that help them survive in water, which is called neoteny.
Animals that favor conditions of neoteny typically live in higher elevations, which includes Lake Xochimilco which has an elevation of around 7,349 feet (2,274 meters).
Physical Characteristics of Axolotls
When compared with other salamanders the axolotl has a unique appearance, and they actually look more similar to the larvae forms of their relatives.
Fully grown axolotls have a length between 15 to 45 cm. (6 to 18 in).
Axolotls have large heads, small limbs, a robust body, and a bladed tail.
The eyes of these salamanders are round, and they do not have any eyelids.
Like juvenile salamanders of other species the axolotl has external gills, which are their most noticeable trait.
The feathery gills on the side of their head have a pinkish or red color, and help them breathe.
The size of the axolotls gill rakers may vary depending on the water they are in and their health.
In the wild axolotls typically appear dark gray, or greenish, and have a mottled pattern covering them.
Due to being held in captivity there have been several color morphs created, some of which are more rare than others.
Some of the color morphs of axolotls include:
- Black melanoid
- Albino white
There are four pigmentation genes that axolotls have, and they are bred to create various morphs of color, specks, and eye shade.
Axolotls also are able to change the shade of their body, and gills to help them better blend into their environments.
Behavioral Adaptations of Axolotls
Axolotls are designed to be fully aquatic, and have webbed feet, and a bladed tail which help them swim.
They also have very small limbs, which they use to push themselves through the water.
The eyes of the axolotl are not very strong, and since their eyesight is very weak, they rely on smell to sense things like food.
Like all salamanders the axolotl is a carnivore, and feeds on small aquatic life it finds.
This may include prey like smaller fish, worms, insects, other salamanders, and other animals small enough to fit into their mouths.
They are capable of swimming up to 15 kilometers per hour (10 miles per hour), which help them catch prey.
Axolotls spend most of their lives resting at the bottom of their freshwater habitats.
Active at night, during the day they often hide in thick vegetation, or within the mud.
Occasionally they may release the air in their body, and go to the surface to breathe air.
While fully aquatic, axolotls like other salamanders have both lungs, and gills.
They can survive on land for up to an hour in a moist environment.
In the wild axolotls have a few predators, which include large fish, storks, and herons.
Their secretive nature helps them survive, but they are also capable of regrowing lost limbs, and even vital organs like heart tissues.
Axolotls have been key animals in studies due to their regenerative nature, and have helped scientists learn more about how they can use this process to do things like reverse aging in humans.
Reproduction and Lifecycle
Since axolotls are neotenic they reach adulthood without undergoing metamorphosis, unlike other salamanders.
Being neotenic they keep many of their larval features including their fins, gills, and large heads.
Axolotls reproduce by laying eggs, and males and females will do a mating ritual to start the process.
Males will nudge the female, and see if she is receptive in mating.
It takes a few hours for fertilization to occur, then they will lay around 400 to 1000 eggs.
It can take anywhere between 14 to 21 days for an axolotl egg to hatch.
The eggs of the axolotls are typically black, but golden albinos, or white albino morphs may lay white eggs.
When born axolotls are only a head, and tail, and look similar to a tadpole, but have external gills.
As an axolotl grows from its larval stage it begins to develop its front, and back legs.
Axolotls reach sexual maturity at around 1 years old, and in the wild they mate in the spring.
After being born axolotls can care for themselves, and begin to feed on small animals in their habitats.
In the wild axolotls have a lifespan of around 5 to 6 years, while cared for properly in captivity they can live up to 15 years.
The axolotl is considered a critically endangered species, and it is estimated by the IUCN that there are only around 50 to 1,000 adults left in the wild.
The destruction and pollution of these salamanders’ habitat is one of the main causes for their decline, especially since they are only native to one water source within Mexico.
The destruction of Lake Chalco in the 1970s, and the dumping of waste in Lake Xochimilco in the 1980s has contributed to the habitat decline of these salamanders, as well as the growth of Mexico City into their native range.
The water quality of Lake Xochimilco has degraded over time, and studies show the water has a low nitrogen-phosphorus ratio, and is high in chlorophyll, which suggests the water lacks oxygen.
Being a salamander, axolotls have very porous skin, which can take in any chemicals from the water into their body, which is why they rely on very clean environments to live in.
Invasive species of fish like Nile tilapia, and common carp are also a threat to the axolotl, since they feed on them, and their eggs.
Having such a small population in the wild causes a loss of genetic diversity, which can be dangerous since it causes inbreeding.
Several methods are being used today to attempt to save the axolotl population, since over the past two decades the wild population of axolotls has declined drastically.
Restoring and cleaning the habitats around Lake Xochimilco, and separating the invasive fish from the axolotls is being done to preserve the species.
While things like climate change, and pollution may forever affect their environment, breeding in captivity may make it so there can always be new populations established.
Caring for Axolotls in Captivity
If you plan on caring for an axolotl you should make sure they are legal in the state, or region you live in.
Axolotls require a specific habitat, and diet to survive.
You should also be sure when caring for them to look out for any diseases they have.
Axolotls need at least a 20 gallon fish tank, with a lid to ensure they do not try to escape.
You can house up to 2 axolotls together, but you will need a larger tank of at least 55 to 75 gallons.
Tanks should be kept away from sunlight, and at a temperature below 21 °C (70 °F), typically ranging around 14 to 19°C (57.2°F to 66.2°F).
Water should be unchlorinated, and there should be a filter used to clean the water.
Axolotls can survive at a pH level between 6.5-8.0, and some of their water should be changed weekley to maintain its cleanliness.
Soft sand is the best substrate to use for their tank, and you should add things like fake vegetation, and large rocks for them to hide in.
The amount of food you feed an axolotl depends on their age, and size, with younger ones eating daily.
You can feed axolotls, live animals like worms, or dry food like pellets.
After they eat you should clean out any leftovers from their tanks.
With the right care, food, and an owner that looks out for health concerns a pet axolotl can live happily for a very long time.
Axolotls in the wild today are very rare, and Lake Xochimilco in Mexico is the only region they can be found in the wild today.
Their small numbers are mainly due the degradation of water conditions, and invasive fish that overtook the region.
Axolotls are one of the rare salamanders that spend their entire lives in water, and these creatures are among many in the wilderness that showcase neoteny.
North America is a salamander homestead, with most species in the world living in this region.
Across the world salamanders are experiencing a mass decline, due to pollution, habitat loss, and climate change.
The axolotl, and other salamander species are at extreme risk, and must be protected to avoid extinction.
Luckily many salamander species like the axolotl do well in captivity, which allow for the preservation and studies of them.
The homes of the axolotl can be easily replicated in captivity, and their hardiness make them great pets for the right owner.
Whether in the wild, or kept as a pet, axolotls are amazing beauties, which is why they are loved even in games like Minecraft.
Why are axolotls illegal to own in some areas?
One of the main reasons that axolotls are illegal to own in some regions is that there is a possibility they can escape captivity, and affect the wild native populations of other salamanders.
Many salamanders across the world are endangered, and competition from invasive species can put them under further threats.
How much do axolotls cost?
Axolotls price varies on their morph, and rarity, and on average they typically cost between $30 to $100.
The rarest of them can cost several hundreds, or even thousands of dollars.
Can axolotls metamorphosis to live on land?
While very rare, it is possible for an axolotl to go through another metamorphosis, and transform into a terrestrial salamander.
This metamorphosis shortens their lifespan, and can be very stressful for them.
Things that may cause them to morph include water level, food, and lighting.