8 Fascinating Facts About the Axolotl

A brown and black spotted axolotl laying on a rocky surface

Kevin Schafer / Getty Images

Axolotls (pronounced ak·suh·laa·tls) are aquatic salamanders that are found in the wild in only one place, Lake Xochimilco in Mexico City. These critically endangered amphibians are also popular as pets and are bred in captivity for scientific research due to their unique ability to regrow body parts. Habitat destruction and the introduction of invasive fish species have led to a dramatic decline in the axolotl population.

These amphibians are small in size, come in a range of colors, and maintain their larval traits throughout their entire lives. From their unusual mating dances to their amazing regenerative traits, discover the most fascinating facts about the axolotl.

1. Axolotls Look Like Babies for Their Entire Lives

Axolotls are neotenic creatures, meaning they achieve sexual maturity without losing any of their larval features. So while many amphibians, like the salamander, will eventually develop lungs and live on land, axolotls keep their trademark feathery external gills and remain aquatic. This also means that their teeth never develop and that they must rely on a suction method to consume food.

2. They Are Native to One Place in the World

The axolotl's native habitat is in dire straits. Once found in two high-altitude lakes in Mexico City, these aquatic amphibians are only found in the wild in one location: Lake Xochimilco in southern Mexico City. Their former home, Lake Chalco in central Mexico City, was drained to avoid flooding. Xochimilco has been reduced to a series of canals, and axolotls are scarce due to the loss of its habitat as well as the introduction of predatory carp and tilapia.

3. They Are Carnivorous

Axolotls are carnivorous — they eat everything from fish and worms to insects and crustaceans. They aren’t especially picky and will eat meat that is dead or alive. Young axolotls, and those with an inadequate food supply, can be cannibalistic, biting off an appendage of a nearby family member. Fortunately, thanks to their ability to regenerate, the injured axolotl can easily grow back the severed body part.

4. They Come in a Variety of Color Patterns

pink axolotl with dark pink fringes around its head
 John Cancalosi / Getty Images

The color pigmentation and patterns of axolotls are the result of four different genes. In the wild, axolotls are most commonly brown or black with specks of gold or olive. Like other salamanders, they can also adjust their color to better camouflage with their surroundings.

The lighter colored axolotls, including albino and pink, are more common in animals that have been bred in captivity. The feathery gills that line the back of an axolotl's head are also pigmented, most notably in the bright red shade found in albino axolotls.

5. They Can Regenerate Body Parts

A number of amphibians are capable of regenerating tails and limbs, but axolotls take this ability up a notch by regenerating jaws, spinal cords, skin, and even portions of their hearts and brains. What's more, an axolotl can continue to regenerate throughout its life. The regenerative abilities of this animal's cells are of significant interest to researchers hoping to translate this ability to humans.

6. They Have a Large Genome

With 32 billion DNA bases and a genome 10 times the size of a human’s, sequencing the DNA of axolotls is a challenge for scientists. But it's an important one, as it will help researchers discover how the axolotl uses stem cells to regenerate tissue. Scientists have already identified two genes used in regeneration in axolotls. Because the regenerative abilities of axolotls are so impressive, scientists continue to expand their research to include other internal organs and retina regeneration.

7. Their Courtship Rituals Involve Dancing

When axolotls reach six months of age, it’s time for them to mate. The process begins with the adult animals rubbing each other's cloacal region, and continues with them moving together in a circular, dance-like fashion.

Females lay approximately 100 to 300 eggs and breed once per year in the wild, more frequently in captivity. After the eggs are safely deposited, there is no further parental involvement. When the eggs hatch after 10 to 14 days, the young axolotl are on their own.

8. They Are Critically Endangered

Found only in one small region in Mexico, the axolotl is critically endangered in the wild. They occupy less than four square miles in a habitat that is in severe decline. Their importance to scientific research and their ability to be bred in captivity should help ensure their survival, but not necessarily in the wild.

The number of axolotls remaining in the wild is uncertain. Conservation efforts have centered on raising the water level of Lake Xochimilco, restoring the axolotls’ environment, and reducing the population of invasive fish species in their habitat.

Save the Axolotl

  • Support local education programs that create awareness of the plight of the axolotl.
  • Train local tour guides about axolotl and encourage sharing information with visitors on boat tours.
  • Encourage local farmers to create aquatic gardens to provide shelter for the axolotl.
  • Donate to the Association of Zoos and Aquariums Conservation Grants Fund to support axolotl education, breeding, restoration, and reintroduction projects.