Previously difficult to come by, keeping axolotls (commonly known as ‘axies’ among aficionados) has become increasingly popular over the past few years, and it is very easy to see why. They are relatively easy to house, feed and maintain, and their quirky appearance makes them an attractive addition to your household.
Websites and forums on axie care have popped up worldwide, but as a fairly new ‘pet’ most of the information out there is anecdotal, rather than scientific making it difficult to ascertain best practice, especially where feeding is concerned.
So let’s look at the common food sources for your axolotl, and see what makes for the very best diet.
What Do Axolotls Eat In The Wild?
A member of the salamander family, the unusual appearance of the axolotl is due to neotony – it retains its juvenile (larval) features for life. In the wild they are found only in the lakes and canals of Xochimilco near Mexico City. Sadly, human encroachment into their habitat along with the introduction of non-native species into the waters has put axolotls on the ‘critically endangered’ list.
Axolotls live permanently in water, unlike other salamanders, which obviously means their development and dietary requirements are very specific.
They have no eyelids, and prefer dim light, and their eyesight is generally considered poor. To compensate, they have a keen sense of smell to help them detect food, as well as being attracted to the movement of prey in the water around them – they are highly efficient predators.
While they have teeth, these are used only for ‘snapping’ down on food, not for chewing. Instead axies will swallow their food whole. Without the ability to rip or tear food into bite-sized pieces, their diet is restricted by size, and includes crustaceans, molluscs, insect larvae, worms and even some small fish.
Axolotls are carnivorous, with a digestive tract not built for digesting plantstuff. Whilst they may take the odd bite from nearby plants, they will derive no nutritional value from anything they ingest and may, in fact, experience health problems if they eat too much.
So What Can I Feed My Axolotl?
Axolotls require a diet high in protein and low in fat – around 40% protein is considered ideal. Calcium and vitamins D3 and A are also important. D3 to help absorb the calcium and A because amphibians cannot synthesise this vitamin, so must take it from their food – live food is an ideal source. As for humans, excessive amounts can be harmful, so a balanced diet is essential.
There are three main food types for axies – live, frozen and pellets. We’ll have a look at some of the most common types.
A juvenile axie will require solely live food to start with. This is because their smell receptors are not developed yet, so they will not recognise anything that doesn’t move as food. Live daphnia and brine shrimp are ideal first foods.
Brine shrimp and Daphnia, while perfect first foods for juveniles, do not contain enough nutrients to keep an adult axie healthy, so additional food sources are needed.
As they grow you can move them onto other foods. It is important not to overfeed them, and not to give them oversized portions. As a rule of thumb, their stomachs should be no wider than their heads.
Pellets are a convenient food source and sinking pellets are ideal for axolotls to ‘graze’ on at the bottom of their tank. Pellets should not be used as the sole source of food for your axie, however. They do not contain sufficient nutrients for a complete diet.
Frozen food is also convenient, with bloodworm being a top favourite – it has been likened to ‘catnip’ for axolotls. Bloodworm is excellent for juveniles as its high fat content helps them grow, but that same high fat content makes them unsuitable for anything other than a treat for adult axies.
Which brings us to the humble worm. Worms contain enough nutrients on their own to sustain a healthy adult axie. They can be chopped and fed to juveniles (the sections keep wiggling for a time), and larger pieces, or smaller, whole worms, can be fed as they mature.
What are the pros and cons of the different types of food?
Easy Buy: Pellets
With all the nutrients needed to keep your axolotl healthy, it is clear that worms really are the best food source for them. So let’s look at what you need to know.
Which worms are best?
While common or garden earthworms can be fed to axolotls, there are pitfalls.
Firstly, if you collect worms from the wild, you have no idea what they have been feeding on, or whether their environment contains pesticides or other harmful toxins – you do not want to introduce these into your tank, for obvious reasons.
‘Wild’ earthworms can also carry parasites, again, something to avoid. They also tend to be higher in fat than is ideal.
Black worms are a popular choice, and easily obtainable from aquatic stores. They are ideally suitable for juvenile axies, but because of their size, you would need rather a lot to feed an adult!
The most commonly used worms, therefore, are Red Wigglers and Nightcrawlers (particularly European and Canadian). Both are easy to obtain, but do be aware that Red Wigglers do secrete an unpleasant tasting substance when stressed, which can deter even the hungriest axolotl. This substance can be washed off, but traces may still remain. So Nightcrawlers probably take the top spot for this reason alone!
Where Should I Get My Worms?
Worms can be bought from a surprising number of outlets – including bait shops, pet shops, garden supply stores and even online. The downside of purchasing in this way is that you cannot be sure what they have been fed, or where they have ‘grown’ – can you be sure they have been in a toxin-free environment?
The best supplier by far will be a reputable, organic worm farm. As vermiculture grows in popularity due to our increasing desire for sustainability, these are becoming more common, and can be found online and locally.
The other alternative, of course, is to start your own worm colony.
This way you can be sure of their environment and their food supply. Once you have a thriving colony, your worm supply should be self-sustaining, making this option more economical – apart from the initial outlay on setting up.
There are many commercial worm composters available, with choices for even the smallest spaces. Some of the best options can be found here [best composters link].
How Do I Keep Worms For My Axolotl?
Although worms can be kept for a time in the containers they arrive in, this is not recommended long-term. To keep your worms happy and healthy, you should create a good environment for them. By learning how to maintain their habitat and what best to feed them, you can create a self-sustaining supply of high-quality worms to give your axie the best possible diet.
You will need a suitable container, bedding and food. You can make your own wormery, but, especially for beginners, a commercial worm composter is usually your best choice because they are better designed to regulate moisture.