Sunday, March 20, 2011


To tell you the honest truth, I had never even heard of axolotls until one of my most faithful fans asked me to write a blog entry about them.  So I looked them up, and I found out that they are these funny-looking Mexican salamanders that only live in one lake in the middle of Mexico.  And since that lake is mostly all dried up except for a few polluted canals, the axolotl is CRITICALLY ENDANGERED in the wild.

But what I also learned is that axolotls are easy to breed in captivity, and they are used a lot in research.  Also they are kept as pets in the U.S., Great Britain, Australia, Japan, and some other countries.  Sometimes they are called wooper loopers, which I think is a cute name, and it's easier to say than axolotl.

There are several things about axolotls that make them different from most salamanders.  First of all, they don't go through all the parts of a normal life cycle that an amphibian is supposed to.  A frog is an example of an amphibian, and frogs start their lives in the water as tadpoles.  And then later they grow legs and lose their tails, and they crawl out on the land and become frogs.  Also they breathe through gills when they live in the water, and they use lungs after they get to be frogs.  And going through all these changes is called metamorphosis.

Salamanders usually have this same sort of life cycle like frogs do, but axolotls are different.  And the way they are different is that they never leave the water when they grow up.  They just stay there and keep breathing through gills.  We don't know why they don't leave the water.  Maybe they just like it better than living on land.  Or maybe they were safer living in the water, so they just never evolved to live on the land.  Scientists think that axolotls don't have the right thyroid hormones to make them go through metamorphosis and live on land.  But anyway, when an animal stays in a juvenile period of its life like this, it's called neoteny.

So that's one thing that is unusual about axolotls.  And another thing is that they can heal themselves in amazing ways.  Like for instance, if an axolotl loses its leg or its tail, it can grow a brand new one that's just as good as the one that was lost.  Also if you do something like transplant an eye from one axolotl into another one, it will grow there and be a nice, usable eye.  Researchers are really interested in all this stuff because it helps them understand how embryos develop and how transplants can be done and that kind of thing.

Axolotls are about 9 inches long when they are full grown.  Their gills are on stalk-like things on the outside of their bodies, and they look kind of like lacy collars.  Also axolotls have fins all the way down their backs.  They have wide heads and skinny little legs and toes.  The way they eat is they lunge at their food and suck it in.  Then they swallow the food whole because they just have little nubby tooth things that never grow into anything they can really bite with.

What axolotls like to eat in the wild is stuff like worms, insects, and small fish.  In captivity, they eat earthworms, bloodworms, waxworms, blackworms, whiteworms, brindal worms, daphnia, mealworms, and brine shrimp.

There are four main colors for axolotls.  The two colors that you would normally see are wildtype, which is some shade of brown with spots, and melanoid, which is a fancy word for black.  Besides that, there are two mutant colors, and they are leucistic (pale pink with black eyes) and albino (golden, tan, or pale pink with pink eyes).

The name axolotl comes from the Aztec language, and it means something like "water dog."  Of course, these little salamanders don't look anything like dogs, at least in my opinion.  But there used to be this Aztec god named Xolotl, and he would change himself into a water animal to avoid being sacrificed.  So that is supposedly where the name axolotl comes from.  I'm not sure why the Aztecs would be trying to sacrifice one of their own gods, but this part wasn't explained in what I learned about axolotls.

Anyway, back in the old days, when the Aztecs lived in Mexico, in the middle of a bunch of lakes such as Xochimilco and Chalco and Texcoco, there were tons of axolotls living in the water of the lakes.  This was exactly the kind of environment that axolotls liked to live in because it was fresh water at a high altitude.  And the Aztecs ate axolotls as part of their diet.

But then Mexico City got built where the Aztecs used to live, and all the lakes got drained and filled in to make land to put the city on.  So all that's left is a few canals of Xochimilco, which is a big tourist place where you can go and take a ride on a boat that is all decorated with flowers.  Mom was there and rode on the boats back in 1972, when she was much, much younger.  She told me that the water looked very dirty even back then, so now it must be lots worse, and it is pretty surprising if any axolotls can stay alive there.

Also besides the pollution, there is the problem of African tilapia and Asian carp being put in the water there, and they are eating the baby axolotls and the axolotls' food.  One scientist who has studied the situation made an estimate that there are only about 100 axolotls in every square kilometer of wetlands now, even though estimates were 10 times higher in 2004, and 6 times higher than that in the 1980s.  So this is why they say that the axolotl is so critically endangered.

But like I told you before, lots of people have these little salamanders as pets because they are pretty easy to keep if you have an aquarium and the right kind of water at the right temperature and some worms to feed them.  You can go online and read all about how to take care of your axolotl, and there are discussion groups, plus you can even buy axolotl plush toys and t-shirts.  Personally, I think a dog or a cat would make a better pet because they are cuddlier and smarter, but I guess some people have different ideas about pets!


  1. Dear Piper,
    It makes me feel all happy inside that you wrote about Axolotls! I also have a question... If Axolotls can regennerate ALL their major organs (including their heart)how are they becoming endangered? Is it something to do with poison?
    Your #1 fan, Tas
    P.S. I am starting my own blog, I will tell you when I am ready!! You will be happy to know that YOU'RE my inspiration!!!!!!!

  2. WOW...I'd never heard of Axolotls! I found the info quite interesting! Many many years ago, on my first trip to Mexico, I also got to ride on the "flower covered" boats! I also think I have something in common with the Axolotls; the term "neoteny" - I find the juvenile stage much more fun than maturing. :) Thanks for today's blog! Oh....Happy Spring!
    Love, AP

  3. Dear Tas,
    I thought it would make you happy if I wrote about axolotls, and I was right! But to answer your question, I don't think they can regenerate all their organs. Mostly they can just grow new legs and tails and maybe eyes and part of their brain. The reason they are endangered in Lake Xochimilco in Mexico is because the pollution makes it hard for them to find nice food to eat and also to breed. And the other problem is that people have brought in fish like tilapia and carp that aren't native to that lake, and these fish gobble up the baby axolotls. So if there aren't any babies, they can't grow up and make more axolotls. But there are lots of axolotls in captivity. It's just in their native habitat where they are endangered.

    I think it is totally cool that you are starting your own blog! I definitely want to read it!

    Love, Piper

  4. Dear Aunt Patty,
    Happy Spring to you, too! One thing I read about "neoteny" was that it's used to describe some toy breeds of dogs. This is not because these dogs don't mature and have puppies, but it's because they keep looking like puppies themselves, even when they are grown up. So people who like baby puppy kinds of dogs tend to like toy breeds.
    Love, Piper

  5. Dear Piper-

    Thank you for the informative blog about axolotls. We think they look friendly because it looks like they are smiling. I don't know why they look so happy if they are critically endangered. Maybe they don't know what that means? Mom knows someone who made a needle felted axolotl. It was very cute, but my mom has not made a felted axolotl. Although one of her felted basenjis can be seen here:

    I also think you should know about this endangered animal:
    I don't know why one would choose a snot otter for a mascot, but mom assures me that the Wall Street Jounal would not make up things.

    Your Friend,
    Zest, superstar in training

  6. Dear Zest,
    If I were going to have a salamander as a pet, I think I would much prefer the axolotl because, like you said, it looks happy. I have heard of hellbenders, but I didn't know they were also called "snot otters." What a yucky name! But then they are really ugly, yucky-looking animals, too. I think you sent me the link to your mom's felted basenji once before, and I like it a lot. Did she make it to look like you? Maybe she could make a felted snot otter -- but without the snot part!
    Your friend, Piper

  7. Dear Piper and fans,
    As an axolotl owner (and occasional breeder, when they feel like it), I just wanted to congratulate you on generating interest on these fascinating critters. I just wanted to fill you in on some info that wasn't completely answered (Tas' question): One of the original two lakes which axolotls existed in has been completely drained and no longer exists (thanks to human development); the other is nearly gone as well, and exists only a series of manufactured and highly-polluted canals. The combination between habitat loss and pollution are the main threats, and secondary are invasive species and human traditions (some people still eat them even though it's illegal). On the bright side, axolotl pet owners are usually pretty dedicated to their animals and keep tight networks and share offspring, so a hugely varied genepool exists in captive breeding and is assisting wild populations as we speak :). Keep up the good work Piper!

    Owner of: axolotls Freckles, Pepper, Axol (Rose), and Mr. Hyde; blue lobster Taco; a bunch of hermit crabs; the late Nikki (a papillon), and wishful owner of a Basenji like you :)!

  8. P.S.
    Zest, if you have the link to the knitted axolotl I would potentially love to purchase one!

  9. Dear Aunt Elaine,
    Thanks for the extra information about axolotls and for answering some questions about them. You have a very interesting bunch of pets at your house, but you really need a basenji to make your life complete! LOL
    Your Friend, Piper