All about axolotls: They’re cannibals that can regrow missing limbs, and they’re one of the most popular pets with kids today

photo by: Dan Coleman

Axolotls, like this one at Pet Stop, are known for their feathery external gills.

Generations of kids have begged for a cat or dog, but these days parents may be asked for an animal they have never heard of — a surprisingly cute amphibian called an axolotl.

Many adults may not even be able to pronounce the word, let alone say what one is, but most kids can, which is why this strange creature has become the hottest selling pet of the past few years.

“Axolotls are one of our most popular animals now,” says Dylan Breedlove, reptile specialist at Pet Stop, located in Shawnee. “They’re right up there with ball pythons and leopard geckos for a starter reptile or amphibian.”

photo by: Dan Coleman

Dylan Breedlove, reptile specialist at Pet Stop in Shawnee, looks at a tank of axolotls.

There is no denying that the axolotl (Abystoma mexicanum) is having a moment. Its sly smile and feather boa-like external gills can be spotted everywhere these days, from stickers and T-shirts to the Mexican 50-peso bill. In June 2021, Minecraft, one of the world’s most popular video games, added a version of the species to its digital bestiary. Since then, Breedlove says, “every kid who plays it wants one.”

But what exactly is an axolotl? The word itself, according to information published online by the San Diego Zoo, means “water dog” in the Aztec Nahuatl language, and also refers to Xolotl, a god of fire. Although sometimes called the Mexican walking fish, the axolotl is an amphibian closely related to the tiger salamander (Abystoma tigrinum).

In the wild it can be found only in one place, Lake Xocimilcho, in southern Mexico City. Environmental factors both natural and man-made have dramatically altered the axolotl’s habitat, and the species is critically endangered. A Smithsonian Magazine report notes that the wild axolotl was briefly thought to be extinct in 2015, and fewer than 1,000 individuals are believed to remain in the lake today.

Paradoxically, axolotls thrive in captivity, which, according to Breedlove, “will probably soon be the only thing keeping them around.” Their aquarium habitats are no more difficult to establish than those of tropical fish, and axolotls do well at room temperature, so no heater is required. They eat a simple carnivorous diet — which can include shrimp pellets, feeder guppies, and good old-fashioned earthworms — grow to be around a foot long, and may live 10 to 15 years.

Breedlove says the biggest challenge for axolotl owners is the process of “cycling” a tank at setup. This refers to the six to eight weeks it takes for the ammonia and bacteria in an aquatic environment to reach a balance that will sustain animal life. Pet Stop requires customers to fully cycle their aquariums, and have their water tested, before they take home an axolotl. Pet World, the only pet store in Lawrence to carry axolotls, sells pre-conditioned water and bio-media to help with this process, as well as an axolotl starter kit, which includes a 20-gallon tank and other supplies.

Some owners may be surprised at their new pet’s level of activity, or inactivity, as is more often the case with axolotls. “Reptiles and amphibians are not like cats and dogs,” Breedlove says. “Their goal in life is to survive and be full. If all their needs are met, they have no reason to expend any energy, so they’re just going to pick a spot and sit there until they get hungry.”

While there may not be a lot of action, every axolotl tank is home to something extraordinary. The animal’s trademark external gills, affectionately called “floofs” by axolotl lovers, are actually a standard feature of all salamander larvae. Unlike salamanders, which absorb their external gills and fins as they mature, axolotls retain these larval traits throughout their lives in a sort of perpetual youth biologists call neoteny. In addition to giving axolotls a baby face to tug on human heartstrings, this gives them a superpower most animals lack: the ability to regenerate entire limbs and organs.

The power to regrow missing body parts comes in handy when cannibalism, another odd axolotl trait, kicks in. Breedlove says there’s a “hyper-cannibalistic phase” during which axolotl babies nibble on each other’s limbs and gills. This behavior is rare among well-fed adults of a similar size, however.

“I tell customers that axolotls have about two brain cells, and those aren’t even on the same page,” Breedlove says. “But once you get through the process of cycling a tank, they are a really simple and straightforward pet to take care of, and I never see the people who take them home come back unhappy.”


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