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Salamanders and Newts


    Be sure to read our article on cycling your tank to promote the growth of beneficial bacteria, that you need for most aquariums.

Yin! (Or, the Care and Keeping of Axolotls)

If you’ve never heard of an axolotl before, you’re not alone. Most people haven’t. The only reason I ever heard of them was because I used to write pet articles, and even then I wasn’t writing an axolotl article, but some kind of salamander article. And a salamander is, kind of, what axolotls are. But they are not the terrestrial salamander you’re thinking of. Axolotls are salamanders, native to Mexico, that have never completed the transition from larvae to adult. These types of creatures are known as neotenic. In most other salamander species, this would be considered an abnormality, but in axolotls it’s normal and natural, and these salamanders are only abnormal when they, rarely, do complete the metamorphosis.

Axolotl at the World Wildlife Aquarium - photo by Sunnie LaPan

Salamanders are super cool, and I have nothing against them, but I’ve never wanted to have one as a pet. Axolotls, though, are quite different, even though they are technically salamanders. First off, they are ridiculously cute. They have huge, feathery gills, big eyes, and faces that seem to smile at you. They’re also fully aquatic, as opposed to terrestrial. They can also be found in a huge variety of colors.

After much adoration from afar, and reading up on the extreme specifics of axolotl care, I finally got my own, Yin. Below, you can read all about the specifics of axolotl care. First, though:

A Note on Pronunciation
There are a lot of axolotl/salamander/newt enthusiasts out there, who know an awful lot, and insist on pronouncing the word axolotl as ax-ahl-aw-tull. I even heard Alex Trebek say it that way. However, I know that in Mexican Spanish, Xs are pronounced like Hs. And axolotl is a purely Mexican word… So, wouldn’t it make a lot more sense to pronounce it AH-ahl-aw-tull? I could be wrong on this, but it just seems so much more likely, so I’m sticking to it until an honest Mexican Spanish speaker tells me I’ve got it wrong.

Tank Set-Up
Axolotls can grow to between 12 and 16 inches long, which is damn long. For that reason, adult axolotls really need aquariums of 20 gallons or larger. However, (and the aquatic community will kill me for this) I couldn’t afford a 20 gallon aquarium, on top of all the other things I needed to get for Yin, plus the cost of Yin himself. Instead, I bought a 10 gallon aquarium. This made sense to me for a number of reasons. The first, as I mentioned, was price. When not buying all the other stuff, I foresee having enough cash, by the time Yin needs a larger habitat, to buy him one. I’m also the kind of person who always has some kind of fish or other critter, so I knew I’d be able to get some use out of the 10 gallon when Yin was done with it. Also, axolotls grow to be pretty large, but they start life surprisingly tiny. After Yin, who maxes out at about an inch and a half, arrived, I was thrilled I’d gone with the smaller tank. They tell you how small they’ll be, but it doesn’t really sink in that they’ll be that tiny. I think I might have lost him in a bigger aquarium.

Inside the aquarium, you may want to lay down a substrate. If you have an acrylic aquarium, this is almost unnecessary, since the surface gives more traction that glass. However, remember that, although they do swim, axolotls spend a lot of time walking around. If you’re going for a maintenance-free bottom, consider laying down some thin lines of acrylic sealant. Otherwise, choose either large rocks or a very fine sand. I went for the rocks, myself. If you go for rocks, make sure that they are larger than your axolotl’s head, and never use gravel. When axolotls eat, they kind of gulp or suck in the food and everything surrounding it. If the stone or gravel can fit in the axolotl’s mouth, it’s pretty much guaranteed that it will get swallowed. As you can imagine, this causes massive health problems. (Some axolotl care sources I’ve seen say that large gravel is okay- it’s not! Don’t listen to them.)

Axolotls are pretty shy critters, so you’re going to want to provide some shelter for them, in a number of ways. The first thing you might want to do is install an aquarium background that covers about three sides of the tank. This will keep them from jumping out of their skin every time you walk in the room and startle them. You can buy aquarium backgrounds at the pet store, but they’re like $15. Ridiculous! I used my master artist skills and drew some lovely plants and dark blue water on plain white paper, then used double sided tape to stick it to the back and sides of the aquarium. It looks like a kindergartener drew it, but Yin doesn’t seem to mind.

In addition to a background, you want to provide places in the tank where the axolotl can hide. I got several large, artificial fluffy plants (don’t ever use anything sharp- this goes back to the axolotls-will-swallow-anything rule) as well as some live java moss. You can use a lot of different live plants with axolotls, but they do tend to rearrange and might dig things up, so I went with java moss because it’s basically indestructible, super easy, and just floats on the bottom. For a fish, this would be plenty of hiding space. For an axolotl, it’s not. Right away, I could see Yin searching for a spot to bury himself. He kept trying to get under the large rocks I have. Axolotls need a quiet hiding place where they can feel secure. There are many different fish hides available at pet stores, but a clean, empty terracotta pot or a piece of PVC pipe will work too. Just make sure it’s large enough that your axolotl doesn’t get stuck and can’t cut himself on it.

After the inner part of the tank is set up, it’s time to look into filtration. If you’ve delved into the world of aquariums at all, you know there are about a million different filter options. The best of these tends to be canister filtration. That, conveniently, also tends to be the most expensive. I mean, so expensive that when you see the price your eyeballs fall out of your head. I have bettas and apple snails and goldfish, so the only filtration I’ve ever needed or worked with is hang-on-back filters. These filters are simple to set up and maintain, work relatively well, and are stupidly inexpensive. I also happened to have a perfectly good 10 gallon hang-on-back filter already. The problem with axolotls is that they don’t like water flow. The obvious answer is no filter, but axolotls can be messy, so filtration is kind of necessary. With canister filters, you can attach a spray bar to divert water flow, or adjust the output or direction of the filter itself. With a hang-on-back filter, no such luck. I started experimenting with stuff I could jam into the filter output to create a smoother, calmer flow. I tried cheesecloth, (cheap, clean, looks good, works well, but isn’t very durable) old face cloths cut into strips, (same problem as the cheesecloth) but finally settled on strips of soft fiberglass cut from an home air filter. Now, I get that it seems like a seriously bad idea to put fiberglass in an aquarium. However, if you only just let it touch the water surface, and ensure that there are no pieces trailing loose, it works really, really well. It last forever, it creates a smooth water flow so there's almost no agitation, and I’ve never had a problem with it. I use it in all of my tanks and have never had a critter get cut or rubbed by it, and have never even seen any of them attempt to nip at it. And it’s cheap as all get out.

The Baby Axolotl, Yin! - photo by Sunnie LaPan On top of all this, you’re going to want some kind of lid. For me, this stops the kitties getting in, but, more importantly, it will stop an agitated axolotl from jumping out. Aquarium hoods are lovely, but, again, really expensive, so I went with a cheap screen lid, which also happens to be incredibly sturdy. My cats can sit on them and I’ve never had one break. Of course, if you’re using a hang-on-back filter, or any other equipment that needs to be both in and out of the tank, this causes problems. However, there’s a very easy fix. It’s called scissors. The screen is super sturdy, but not against nail scissors! I cut a neat little hole for my filter, in the screen top. It’s kind of a pain when I need to get into the aquarium, because I have to remove the filter, then the lid, but comparatively, it saves me a lot of trouble.
Important Tip! Don’t be an idiot like me and cut the screen while it’s over the aquarium. You’ll spend the next hour picking little pieces of mesh out of the tank.

Important Tip number 2! When you get an aquarium, it says to fill it and wait 30 minutes to see if it leaks. This isn’t really effective- it takes more like three days for it to spring that leak. So, two important lessons learned: A) Don’t buy aquariums from any place other than a reputable pet supply store, and B) Don’t put all the stuff in the aquarium at first. Just fill it all the way with water and let it sit for several days to see if it’s got a slow leak. A gallon of water won’t work. You need to fill it all the way so that the pressure is great enough for those little tiny, pain-in-the-ass leaks to appear.

Water- Notes on Cycling and Chilling
There are two important factors for an axolotl’s water. First, it must be cold. Axolotls prefer a water temperature between 60 and 64 degrees Fahrenheit. They can go higher or lower than that, but anything over 74 and under 58 is dangerous. Living in Arizona, we don’t really have cold temperatures. My house is set at 80 and I never heat my aquariums. The water is usually around 72. Aquarium chillers work really well, but are in that eyeball-popping range of expensive. There are a lot of kinds of slap-dash methods out there for chilling, though. Whatever you choose, remember that you want to maintain a constant temperature. I bought an aquarium fan which blows air across the surface of the water. It keeps the water temperature between 67 and 68 degrees. Thinking back, a small household fan probably would have worked as well, if you could get it to blow directly across the surface of the water. On super hot days, I sometimes put ice cubes on top of the screen and let them melt into the tank. And, I keep clean aquarium water in jugs in the fridge. When I need to replace water, I use one gallon from the fridge and one gallon from the tap and the balance works to keep the water at the right temperature.

The second factor for axolotl water is that it must be clean. Namely, the aquarium must be cycled. The water also needs be as free of waste, whether it’s waste from excess feeding or waste from the axolotl itself. This is where your filter and some spot cleaning or partial water changes come into play. You can use a turkey baster to suck up any waste from the bottom.

Axolotl keepers will generally tell you that these critters need live foods. I am not a live foods girl. In fact, I’ve had pretty bad luck with it in the past. Either my cultures died, or the baby fish I was trying to feed weren’t into the foods. (Turned out the preferred powdered baby fish food. Go figure.) However, I discovered the axolotls will also eat pellet food, as long as it sinks. There are some salmon pellets axolotls seem to like. These aren’t that easy to get and you have to buy in bulk. There are also some pellets specifically designed for axolotls. Instead of these, I went with sinking newt and salamander bites, which are cheap and available at the pet store. I chose two different kinds, to kind of even out the vitamins and protein. Whatever you feed you axolotl, remember that they need both vitamins and protein, and the foods should have a relatively low fat content.

Personally, I like to know the gender of my pets. With axolotls, it’s hard to tell at first, because they don’t reach sexual maturity until they are about a year old, roughly six inches in size. Once an axolotl is mature, the easiest way to determine gender is by looking at the cloacal region, just behind the back legs. Males will be swollen here. Males also tend to be slightly large and longer, with a lean body shape, while females are more rounded.

Axolotls are an expensive, endangered species. Goldfish require similar water current and temperature parameters. For this reason, we recommend keeping a goldfish before investing in an axolotl. (I’ve also found them to be hardier, and they’re great pets, so if you’re interested, it’s not a bad way to practice.)   -SEL

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