The Axolotl (pronounced ACK-suh-LAH-tuhl), also known as the Mexican Salamander or the Mexican Walking Fish, is a unique type of salamander that originates from a pair of adjacent lakes in Mexico, Lake Xochimilco and Lake Chalco. Since these lakes were part of the lake complex upon which sat the ancient Aztec island capital of Tenochtitlan, these creatures were well known to the Aztecs and other civilizations that occupied the area. The name Axolotl is derived from the Aztec language of Nahuatl, with some popular translations of that name being “water dog”, “water monster”, and “servant of the water”. The name also has connections with the Aztec god Xoatl (twin brother of Quetzalcoatl), who in Aztec mythology transformed himself into an axolotl to avoid banishment.
Unfortunately for these fascinating amphibians, in modern times the lakes they call home happened to sit in the way of Mexico City’s expansion. This led to the draining of Lake Chalco and the reduction of Lake Xochimilco to just a series of canals and waterways. As a result, axolotols are critically endangered in the wild. However, due to bother their popularity in the scientific community and their popularity as pets there are still a large amount of axolotls around today.
Axolotls have been studied by scientists for decades due to their ability to regenerate themselves after injury. After an axolotl suffers an injury such as limb loss, instead of forming scar tissue their body will actually signal its cells to get to work creating a perfect replica of what was there before. You can watch a video about their amazing regenerative abilities below.
The other thing that makes axolotls special is a trait called neoteny, which means they reach sexual maturity without undergoing metamorphosis.The average life cycle of an amphibious salamander is to 1) hatch in the water, 2) spend time as a gilled water-dwelling larva, and 3) eventually undergo metamorphosis to become air-breathing and land-dwelling. Instead, axolotls retain their youthful appearance and features, and simply become bigger and bigger.
In rare cases, axolotls can and do mature past their larval stage and undergo metamorphosis, but this usually seems to occur only in situations where water conditions have deteriorated or they are stimulated to through injections of iodine. As an axolotl owner, it is important that you never let your axolotl grow up. Although they are capable of undergoing metamorphosis, it is an extremely dangerous and stressful process for the animal. Many axolotls actually die during the process, and those that survive often don’t make it more than a year or so as a land-dweller. This is why is is extremely important to keep an axolotl completely submerged with a proper tank and water setup at all times.
Axolotls as Pets
Axolotls may not be a common pet choice, but they are certainly a fun one. Their cute features and goofy “smiles” have made them more and more popular, and a simple search on instagram or tumblr will bring up countless results of people showing off their pets. Thanks to the work of breeders, there are many varieties of axolotl around with all kinds of different colors and markings. Combined with the bright red filaments of their gills, they are extremely visually striking pets.
Axolotls have a long lifespan, and a well cared for axolotl can live for 10-15 years. Once set up in a tank that meets their environmental requirements, they are relatively easy to maintain. However, as they are pretty fragile animals, it is important that you understand how to set up an optimal environment for your axolotl so you don’t run into any problems when you first bring it home. You can read more about the guidelines for creating a perfect axolotl tank setup in our extensive care sheet, we encourage you to read through it fully so you can understand everything you need to know before you take one of these amazing animals home.