Axolotl Tank Setup – The Ultimate Guide

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Are you thinking of starting a new aquarium project with an axolotl as the star of the show? Setting up the ultimate axolotl tank setup isn’t as difficult as it seems. In this article, we will look at everything you need to know to set up the best home for your new pet.

Before we get started, however, let’s make sure you know a little about this awesome amphibian.

A Quick Overview On The Axoltl

Scientific NameAmbystoma mexicanum
Common NamesAxolotl, Mexican walking fish, Mexican salamander, or Mexican axolotl
FamilyAmbystomatidae
OriginOriginally found in several lakes, such as Lake Xochimilco underlying Mexico City
DietCarnivore
Care LevelIntermediate
ActivityLow
Lifespan10-15 years
TemperamentPeaceful
Tank LevelBottom
Minimum Tank Size20 gallons
Temperature Range59 – 73°F (15 – 23°C)
Water Hardness125-250ppm (7-14deg)
pH Range6.5 – 8.0
Filtration/Water FlowLow
Water TypeFreshwater
BreedingEgg-layer
Difficulty to BreedIntermediate
CompatibilitySpecies-only tank or community tank
OK, for Planted Tanks?Yes, but known to uproot plants

Axolotl Care Sheet

Ambystoma mexicanum, commonly referred to as the axolotl, Mexican walking fish, Mexican salamander, or Mexican axolotl, are salamanders that stay in their larval stage.

This means that axolotls will never morph into their adult forms and are thus known as neotenic salamanders. This, however, means that an axolotl will never take to land and thus needs to be housed in a fully aquatic tank setup.

Lifespan

Axolotls are only for those who are ready for a long-term commitment. If cared for properly, these critters will bless you with up to 15 years of cuteness.

Make sure you choose a healthy axolotl to start off with. It can become quite challenging to nurse them back to health.

The stress of moving house won’t help either. This means that a sick axolotl is more likely to get sicker due to stress. Healthy axolotls tend to handle rehoming much better.

Appearance

Axolotl in Aquarium

Adult axolotls are usually dark brown with black speckling. Since they remain aquatic, you can expect to see dark gills extending from both sides of the head.

It is also possible to find other color morphs such as albinos and specimens with both white and brown markings. In albinos or white varieties, you can expect the feathery gills to be a pink color (like the one pictured above).

Mexican walking fish have pretty long tails, while their legs and feet are small in comparison. There is a fin along the spine that extends from the tip of the tail all the way to the back of the head. You can expect to see another lower fin that extends from between the hind legs all the way to the tip of the tail.

Axolotls should always be kept in water due to their permeable skin. If left outside of the water for even a short amount of time, your axolotl will dehydrate and die.

Permeable skin also makes axolotls vulnerable to chemicals in the water. For this reason, you need to make sure only tap water treated with a water conditioner is added to the tank.

Amazingly, these animals can regrow their limbs. Mexican walking fish scientific studies have become quite popular for this particular reason. Everyone would like to know exactly how they do it and if it’s possible to replicate the process for human use.

Average Size

Mexican walking fish may be bigger than you first imagined. The average size of these exotic critters is around 9 inches (23cm).

They can get to about 12 inches (30cm), however, so make sure your tank is big enough to accommodate the size of your fully grown adult axolotls. Many keepers will tell you bigger tanks are always better to house axolotls.

Temperament And Behavior

Ambystoma mexicanum are very peaceful pets. They do very well in community setups with other aquarium fish.

The slow nature of an axolotl makes them relatively safe to have around small fish and other aquatic creatures like shrimps. Pet axolotls prefer to keep to themselves most of the time, even when you have more than one of them in the same tank.

If you have a brightly lit tank, you may never see your axolotl. These critters are nocturnal and very sensitive to bright light. For this reason, they will hide in dark areas of the tank while the lights are on.

During times when the lights are off, the axolotl can be seen digging and sifting through the substrate. This is entertaining for them and appeals to their natural foraging behavior.

Health Considerations

Axolotls are very sensitive creatures. To keep them healthy, you will need to set up an axolotl-friendly tank.

When doing this, keep in mind their behavior, sensitivity, and also how much waste they produce.

For these reasons, axolotls need a tank with good filtration but no extreme currents. The most common signs of distress in axolotls include holding the gills more forward than usual, refusing to eat, and hiding a lot.

Stressed axolotls are also more prone to bacterial infections. If you see any injuries on your pet, make sure to get veterinary advice to solve the problem as quickly as possible.

Diet

Axolotls are highly carnivorous creatures. Fortunately, it’s fairly simple to feed these little wonders.

Feeding axolotls starts with gathering the right foods. They prefer meaty treats like aquatic insects or brine shrimp. What exactly they snack on will also depend on the size of your axolotl so don’t be surprised if brine shrimps just don’t cut it anymore.

If you’re worried about providing the right axolotl feed, consider getting some commercial fish food. Sinking pellets for carnivorous creatures are specifically designed to contain all the nutrients your pet needs to stay healthy. The food from Invert Aquatics below is a great choice.

Great For Axolotls!
Invert Aquatics Soft Pellets for Axolotls

Made in the USA with raw quality ingredients. This food is specially designed for Axolotls!

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Ultimately, what axolotls feed on will depend on what you provide. It’s best to feed a variety of fresh and frozen foods for optimal health.

In addition to the above-mentioned foods, you can also try feeding live mosquito larva, bloodworms, chopped earthworms, strips of meat, or even raw fish. Just keep in mind that you need to feed appropriate amounts to avoid uneaten food spoiling your water quality.

Handling

Handling axolotls should be done with care. If you can avoid it, don’t touch your pet. Instead, use a fine mesh net to catch and relocate your axolotl.

The net will prevent any unnecessary injuries and make it much easier to catch your axolotls when you need to.

How To Setup An Axolotl Tank (Axolotl Tank Setup)

Now that you know a little more about the aquatic animal known as an axolotl, you can start thinking about what you’ll need to create the perfect habitat. Axolotls aren’t very picky about how their tanks look as long as you pay attention to a few critical needs (video source).

Here’s what you need to know.

The Axolotl Tank

Axolotls don’t need much when it comes to tanks. They can be placed in just about any tank as long as it has enough floor space and has a minimum capacity of around 20 gallons. The main Axolotl cost is upfront with the tank, equipment, and animal. maintenance cost is pretty reasonable.

Beginner pet owners may be incorrectly informed on the care of an axolotl. Some pet stores suggest an axolotl tank with as little as 10 gallons capacity. While these tanks can house younger axolotls just fine, it’s not ideal for fully grown adults.

Axolotls create a lot of waste. If the tank is too small, the water parameters will fluctuate quite drastically. This will affect the health of your axolotl in the long run.

It’s always better to go bigger for this exact reason. Bigger tanks have more water in them which means changes in the water parameters will happen slower. This makes it easier to keep your pet axolotl healthy.

You can start off with a small 10-gallon tank for your young axolotls, but keep in mind you’ll soon have to upgrade. If you can go up to 40 gallons from the start, your axolotl will stand a better chance of staying healthy for its entire life.

Substrate Considerations

Most axolotl keepers often create their axolotl tank with a bare bottom. This makes it easy to keep the tank clean, but might affect the health of your pet.

Leaving the tank bare will simplify doing water changes. You can simply suck up any waste at the bottom of the tank without worrying about the substrate. There’s also less chance of anaerobic bacteria causing problems in your axolotl tank.

Unfortunately, bare bottom tanks can cause some stress in your axolotl. They don’t like slipping on the bottom of the tank and may develop sores on the toes due to the effort they exert to hold on.

They also need something to keep them occupied to prevent boredom. Having a bare bottom tank prevents natural foraging behavior such as digging.

Sand is the best substrate for axolotl tanks. Fine sand will prevent slipping and provide endless entertainment. Axolotls love to dig and sift through sand to mimic natural foraging behaviors.

Great For Bottom Feeders
Fine Natural Sand

Natural sand is excellent for bottom feeder fish to forage around in.

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If your pet accidentally eats some of the sand, the particles are also small enough to pass through the digestive system without any problems.

It’s best to avoid any fine gravel. These particles are small enough to be swallowed but too big to pass through the digestive system. This can cause problems such as impaction that will lead to the death of your beloved pet.

Coarse gravel should also be avoided. Even if the particles are big enough not to be swallowed, they will irritate the sensitive skin of your axolotl and cause injuries.

Tank Decorations

Axolotl care includes providing enrichment as well as escapes. By adding tank decorations you can do just that. Here are a few things you should consider adding to your axolotl tank.

Driftwood

Driftwood without any sharp edges is great for axolotl tanks. You can create interesting aquascapes as well as some perfect places to hide.

Driftwood can also be used to grow plants like java fern and anubias nana. These plants prefer to grow attached to objects like driftwood with their roots exposed to the water.

Rocks

It’s always a good idea to add a few rocks to your axolotl tank. River rocks can be stacked to create caves and tunnels for your axolotl to hide in and swim through.

Cichlid rocks are an excellent addition as well. These are fake rocks with holes in them specifically made to provide shelter.

Plants

Live plants are a great choice for an axolotl tank. These creatures produce a lot of waste that is turned into nutrients with the help of the beneficial bacteria in your tank.

These nutrients make excellent plant fertilizer. This means that live plants will remove excess nutrients in the water which in turn improves water quality. Low light plants are ideal given the nocturnal nature of these animals.

Plants are also soft and flexible which means your axolotl can swim in between them without the potential of getting snagged or otherwise injured. Axolotls can also use them as shelter when the need arises.

It’s best to stick to plants like java ferns that prefer to grow on other ornaments instead of in the substrate. Axolotls have a habit of digging up plants that are rooted in the substrate.

Fake plants are an option for axolotl tanks, but they aren’t ideal. They tend to have sharp edges that can injure your axolotl. They also don’t bring any benefits to the tank.

Hides

If your tank doesn’t already have enough hiding spots, then you can consider getting a hide. These are especially important in tanks with extra lighting in planted aquariums.

A hide will create a nice dark hiding spot for your axolotl to relax while the aquarium lights are on. Axolotls are quite sensitive to light so they will appreciate this little getaway.

Reptile Hide

Hides are common place in the reptile word. Excellent for creating a safe space for your reptiles and amphibians

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Hides can be just about anything from an aquarium castle with little holes, to ceramic pipes strategically placed around the tank. Just make sure that whatever hide you choose has no sharp edges that can injure your beloved pet axolotl.

Filtration System

Axolotls are known to produce large amounts of waste quite quickly. For this reason, it is very important to have a strong filtration system.

Unfortunately, this can be quite tricky since an axolotl prefers a filtered tank with a relatively low flow compared to most aquarium critters. The next challenge is providing adequate aeration at the same time. Canister filters are excellent as they can work in lower water levels and won’t make the noise a power filter will make with water splashing from the outflow.

You can also utilize an internal filter, but you will want to consider oversizing given the waste production of these animals.

These not-so-small amphibians are quite clumsy swimmers. If the flow in your filtered aquarium is too strong, your axolotl will quickly become exhausted fighting against the current. This exhaustion will lead to stress and ultimately illness and early death.

If you’re unsure if your tank has too much flow, observe your axolotl. Most axolotls will hold their gills more forward than usual when stressed by the flow in your aquarium.

Sponge filters are an excellent choice for axolotl tanks. Despite how effectively they filter waste, they still create a relatively low flow compared to many other filters and pumps available on the market. Sponge filters also increase aeration and oxygen levels which takes care of both problems in one go.

Lighting

Amphibian enthusiasts will tell you that axolotls do just fine without any lighting in their tanks. In fact, they even prefer tanks without any aquarium lights. Axolotls are nocturnal animals, and this means they will be most active in the dark or in the dim lighting provided by the room’s external lighting.

If planted tank lights are required in your aquarium for growing living plants, it is very important to make sure your axolotl has a dark hiding spot to get away from it all. Axolotls don’t have great eyesight, but their eyes are very sensitive to bright light.

You will notice your axolotl only emerging once the lights in your tank go out. To minimize the time your axolotl needs to hide, make sure to choose plants with low light requirements such as anubias nana, cryptocorynes, and java fern.

Water Parameters

Axolotls aren’t too picky when it comes to their water parameters. As long as you stay in the tolerated range, you should have minimal problems.

This doesn’t mean you can skip on doing tank maintenance, however. Aquarium water can go from good to terrible fairly quickly.

If you have some experience in the aquarium hobby, you will know how important it is to test your water regularly. To do this you will need an aquarium water test kit.

This water test kit should give you an idea of what your water parameters look like with the exception of temperature. You’ll need a thermometer to check that.

If you’re wondering what normal axolotl water parameters are, take a look below:

  • Water temperature: The acceptable range for water temperature is 59 to 73 degrees Fahrenheit (15 – 23°C). The ideal temperature for this species, however, is between 60 and 64 degrees Fahrenheit (16 – 18°C).
  • pH: The acceptable range for pH is 6.5 to 8.0. The ideal pH for your axolotl tank will be 7.4 – 7.6.
  • GH: 125-250ppm (7-14deg)
  • kH: 53-143ppm (3-8deg)
  • Ammonia (NH3): 0 ppm
  • Nitrite (NO2-): 0 ppm
  • Nitrate (NO3-): <60 ppm

Water Temperature

Try to keep the temperature within the temperature range provided. If the tank water constantly warms up to beyond the acceptable range, you might need an aquarium chiller.

The warmer the water, the more stressed your axolotl will become. Warmer water contains less oxygen than cooler water. Axolotls require lots of oxygen to stay healthy which means better aeration is required. If the axolotl just can’t adapt to the change or the aeration isn’t sufficient, it will become stressed and die.

In an emergency, cool the water by adding ice cubes made from fish-safe, treated water. In the case of the water being too cold, simply install an aquarium heater to regulate the temperature.

Make sure to install a thermometer to keep an eye on the temperature in your tank.

Tank Mates

Not all creatures do well as tank mates for axolotls. Some fish tend to nip at their feathery gills. Axolotls are also nocturnal which means they can easily ambush sleeping fish for a quick meal. If you’re still wondering what to place in the tank with your walking fish, take a look at the following suggestions.

Suitable Tank Mates

  • Other Axolotls (Best choice as long as they have enough space and are of equal size)
  • Small Shrimp (ghost shrimps)
  • Guppies
  • Mini soft-shelled snails (Ramshorn snails)
  • White cloud minnows
  • Other species of peaceful cool water fish

Tank Mates To Avoid

  • Goldfish (Fancy goldfish may work as companions for axolotls)
  • Cichlids
  • Cory catfish
  • Otocinclus catfish
  • Any species of aggressive or very large fish

Cory catfish and otocinclus catfish may seem harmless to your axolotl. Unfortunately, these fish do have spines on their dorsal and pectoral fins which can cause fatal injuries to your axolotl if it attempts to eat one of them.

Cycling The Tank

It is very important to prepare your axolotl’s tank at least one month before your new buddy arrives. This allows good bacteria to grow in your tank which in turn stabilizes the water parameters.

These bacteria are responsible for breaking down ammonia which is produced by uneaten food particles as well as axolotl waste. Ammonia is a toxic substance if left untreated.

After being broken down by the bacteria it will be turned into nitrites and then nitrates. Nitrites are still toxic, but the ultimate product, nitrates, is relatively harmless.

If your tank is maintained properly, you should never have spikes in ammonia and nitrites as long as your aquarium is properly cycled beforehand.

Tank Maintenance

Axolotl care starts with proper aquarium maintenance. You will need to do 20% water changes weekly to control the water quality in the tank. A gravel vacuum will come in handy here for siphoning waste from the bottom of the tank.

Before adding new water to the tank, however, make sure it is treated with a water conditioner. Conditioning tap water removes any harmful chemicals such as chlorine from the water.

Your axolotls will spend their entire lives in this tank, so make sure they have the healthiest environment possible.

Multi Axolotl Tanks

Multiple Axolotls

If you plan on keeping more than one axolotl, start with a minimum tank size of 55 gallons. For every additional axolotl after that add another 10 gallons.

This will allow for the appropriate amount of water to prevent ammonia spikes, prevent aggression, and ultimately unnecessary deaths. Some hobbyist take interest in breeding Axolotls. I have a separate article for that if you are interested here.

FAQS

What size tank does an Axolotl need?

An axolotl requires a minimum tank size of around 20 gallons. This allows for steady water parameters without any sudden spikes in ammonia and nitrite due to waste production.

Do axolotls need special tanks?

No, Axolotls are fine in just about any tank. Aquariums with more floor space are ideal, however, since axolotls spend a lot of time moving around on the bottom of the tank.

What fish can be in the same tank as an axolotl?

Fish such as guppies and white cloud minnows make excellent companions for axolotls. You can also place other peaceful community fish with axolotls with the exception of cory catfish and otocinclus catfish.

Can axolotls live with other animals?

Yes, axolotls are peaceful creatures which means they do well when kept with other non-aggressive. You can pair axolotls with peaceful community fish as well as invertebrates like snails.

Do axolotls need sand in their tank?

Yes, sand allows the axolotl some grip on the bottom of the tank. It also allows them to carry out their natural behaviors such as digging and sifting through the substrate.

Final Thoughts

Now that you know a bit more about setting up an axolotl tank you should have no problems designing your own. Just remember to set up a decent filtration system and provide lots of hiding places for your axolotl to relax in.

If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to comment below.

by Mark

Mark is the founder of Aquarium Store Depot. He started in the aquarium hobby at the age of 11 and along the way worked at local fish stores. He has kept freshwater tanks, ponds, and reef tanks for over 25 years. His site was created to share his knowledge and unique teaching style on a larger scale. He has worked on making aquarium and pond keeping approachable. Mark has been featured in two books about aquarium keeping - both best sellers on Amazon. Each year, he continues to help his readers and clients with knowledge, professional builds, and troubleshooting.

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