Imagine you're spelunking in a dark Mexican cave, and you pause by a calm pool of water. Something under the water catches your eye as you shine the light over the glassy surface. It looks like a friendly pink Pokemon and briefly flutters its gill branches at you before swimming away. You've met your first Axolotl, an odd little salamander that never advances out of its tadpole stage. It also makes a pretty neat pet.
Axolotls look like fish, but they're actually amphibians. They are a species of salamander that never ages out of its aquatic tadpole phase and just lives in the water inside a handful of Mexican caverns for its entire life. Axolotls that have been taken to labs and given growth hormone actually do become adult salamanders, of a type never seen before, but in the wild, they remain basically amphibian teenagers all their lives.
Axolotls are an example of what biologists call neoteny. This is the retention of juvenile traits into adulthood. If you can imagine a human who looks like a third-grader driving a car and paying taxes while putting their own kids through college, that's basically how the Axolotl does it. Scientists are very interested in this sort of thing because it may be one of the pathways by which evolution can suddenly hop out of one rut and into another.
After the discovery of the first Axolotls in the wild, it was inevitable people would try to keep them as pets. Luckily, they're friendly and curious, with really easy housing and care requirements. If you have the right setup and make sure the tank stays clean, you can keep an Axolotl happy and healthy for several years.
The legality of keeping an Axolotl as a pet depends on where you live. Most states in America have governments that've never heard of this animal, so it's totally legal to have one, subject to the usual animal welfare laws. Owning an Axolotl is totally illegal in no-fun places like California, Maine, New Jersey, and D.C. You can keep one in New Mexico and Hawaii with an exotic animal permit.
Axolotls' whole vibe is that they're chill little bros. You don't need much to take proper care of one, except a normal freshwater aquarium and a very good pump to keep the water circulating. Aim for cool-to-room temperature water and keep the lighting low, like in a cave, and you're good. These guys are good in groups but make sure they have 10 gallons of water each, or it gets crowded.
Axolotls are cute and friendly, but they'll probably never have a space program. They have tiny brains, and a very shy, skittish nature makes it hard to train them in any meaningful way. Also, they hate being touched or handled, so even cuddles are out of the question. They will eventually learn to swim out to greet you if you keep them to a regular feeding time.
Your Axolotl is friendly from a distance. They like to look at people through the glass of their containers, but if you reach into the tank, they split for cover fast. Put your hand into the water with some food, and they might be brave enough to swim out for a nibble, but don't hope for much beyond the goldfish level of connection with them.
You can keep an Axolotl in an apartment with no more difficulty than you'd have keeping a fish and significantly less hassle than a fiddler crab. Axolotls are perfectly content to glub around in their tanks, provided they have food and clean water and it's not too hot or bright for them.
Far and away, the most common reason a captive Axolotl might get sick is a bacterial infection brought on by a dirty tank. They can also get stressed out if they're too crowded or hot. When this happens, their gills sometimes deteriorate and make breathing underwater hard. If your Axolotl manages to hurt itself, contact the exotic pets vet, but don't panic. These little survivors recover very well from injuries most of the time.
Axolotls in the wild like to eat whatever random garbage falls in the water. That includes worms, bugs, small fish, other salamanders, and whatever fits into their mouths. Pet Axolotls are most often fed brine shrimp, California blackworms (don't tell the government you have an Axolotl; pretend you're the one eating the worms), and regular salmon pellets. Vitamin supplements and occasional antibiotics can also be provided orally, subject to your vet's advice.
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