Kasey Talks Critters Episode 4 With Shelby - Axolotls
Hey, Zen Friends. Welcome back to another episode of Kasey Talks Critters. Today I am here with Shelby. We're going to be talking about axolotls. Shelby is awesome. She is one of our customer service gurus here at Zen Habitats. So, when you chat with someone for customer service-related issues, you are talking to a real person like Shelby. Shelby is also a former axolotl breeder who is now focusing on crested geckos so she's got a lot of great animal experience that we're going to go over. So, let's talk about you, Shelby, and your experience with animals, tell me where you got started.
So, one day we were shopping in a Petco in Wisconsin and the manager had mentioned that he was looking for a dog trainer. Well, I kind of decided to go into that and I ended up getting hired into that. And then it’s kind of just escalated from there all the way to taking care of animals like axolotls.
So, you started with dogs. Let me know. What was your first introduction to axolotls? Because they're so cool.
They're so cool. So, the first introduction to them was when I was working in the Fish Department at Petco, we ended up getting a couple little axolotls then and I was like, oh man, these are the coolest things I've ever seen. So, I started doing some research because I wanted to make sure that they were in proper water and all that other stuff. And I just, I learned so much through that that I just kind of started going and getting axolotls.
There are such cool little critters. The Internet is what got me in love with them. Like, I don't know, quite a few years ago I was like, oh my god, they're living Pokémon. They're so cute. So, when I was in vet tech school, we all had to do a project on an exotic pet, and I chose axolotls. So, I did this stupid long report just on axolotls and their husbandry and all of that. I mean, like, you are an axolotl expert with your breeding quantities and you also moderate a very popular Facebook group, which is awesome. And so, you're helping other people in the axolotl community have the right information, do the right husbandry, and make sure that these awesome critters are living their best lives so kudos to you. So, tell me about the first axolotls you brought home. I want to hear all about it.
So, before axolotls, I was breeding betas. Oh, I used to breed a lot of the exotic ones that you would get them imported in from Indonesia and places like that and I would breed them and then go to shows. Well, we went to a show and there was a vendor next to us who had axolotls and my fiancée was like, We need to get one. So, we ended up with this little melanoid axolotl. She had no front arms, but the vendor was like “oh, they'll grow back.” And I'm like, okay, as long as they grow back. And we named her Burrito and we still have her today. She's been around for about four or five years now.
That is so cool. Let’s get into a little bit more about their husbandry. So, my first question is, are they tricky to establish and what methods do you find useful when bringing home, a new axolotl?
So, axolotls can be tricky for new keepers, especially someone who doesn't have any fish experience per se, like a freshwater aquatic pet, because you need to have a cycle tank for these guys and it has to be a certain amount of water parameters. I mean, there's a lot of work that can go into it. They have to have cold temperatures. People suggest chillers. However, I've always taken a different route and I've just put an AC unit right next to their water so it works for me. Or you can order fans on Amazon and stuff like that, and that seems to work for new keepers in that regard. But it can be tricky. I don't recommend them for first time keepers.
I think it's really good to be transparent about the care of these guys because yes, they do need very cold water. So, what are the temperatures that they should be housed at?
So, a lot of people have varying opinions on it. I tend to say anywhere from 64 to 68 at the highest, any higher than 70, it's not going to be good for the axolotl. That's when you start to see a lot of disintegration within their slime coat, a lot of issues with illness, fungal issues that occur. So, they really have to monitor their water temperature.
I think it's really funny because everyone's like, oh, they're from Mexico, they should be in warmer water. But it's they're in these really deep cold rivers, right?
Absolutely. So, axolotls come from only one lake in Mexico. And that's Lake Xochimilco. Now, with that lake, it is deep enough to be able to have the cold water go to the bottom. And because axolotls are bottom dwellers, that's why you see that temperature difference. And that's what people don't understand. They're like, “oh, it's Mexico, it's really hot.” And it's like. No, no, not in the water. It's pretty chilly down there for these guys and they love it.
So do you think that axolotls I mean, they're already a pretty big pet. I see them everywhere on the Internet. Do you think they're going to be bigger than what they are now?
So, because of Minecraft, I have seen an uptick, especially in children who want them. When I do shows and did have my axolotls at the shows, I would get a lot of questions from children and stuff like that. So, I think with the explosion of that, yes, I just wish that with the explosion of Minecraft and other video games that are bringing these guys forth, that they would bring more of a conservation thing forward for them because of their wild brethren. You know, they're not doing so hot out there now.
For people who don't know, the wild axolotl is an endangered species and they're very endangered in this one lake. Like Shelby and mentioned in Mexico. So, it's a big deal. They're doing very well in captivity based on breeding, etc. And, you know, they're big in the biomedical field for research purposes. So, their captive quantities are blooming and fantastic but our poor wild friends are not doing so good. So, I know you had mentioned that you don't think that the axolotl is good for a beginner. So, who is a good owner of an axolotl?
So, anybody that honestly has fish keeping experience, anybody who has the will to want to put forth into the care of these guys, you know, you do get people that come in new to the hobby and are just you know, they're completely focused on these guys’ care. You know, this is a commitment. And they don’t, they don't just stay alive for a couple of years. These guys can live, you know, ten, 20, 30 years, depending on how well you take care of them. So, if you put forth the care and the effort in these guys, then yeah, they can be a pet for everyone. But you know, I do always say that as long as you have some sense of knowing how to cycle a tank or the will to want to do that, then they'll be a great pet for the future.
So, give us a little input on cycling a tank. So, it’s different water perimeters? What goes into cycling the tank?
We want to make sure that you have zero ammonia, zero nitrates. The nitrogen cycle is appropriate. So, with that, you know, no ammonia in the tank, making sure you have proper filtration. I've always been a big fan of over filtration for these guys because they do have such a massive bio load. These guys, will, how do I put this politely, they’re poop machines. And they definitely need high up filtration. Cannisters are something I highly recommend, oxygenating the water so that your levels are always stable. Because that's another thing that people miss is that P.H. levels with these guys need to be anywhere between 7.5 and at the higher end 8. And a lot of people will have issues with that, their axolotls will become a bit anemic, you know, stuff like that.
They're very fragile little beings. It's because it's you're taking care of essentially a salamander that lives in the water. So, it's like a juvenile salamander that never grows up. ("neotenic" - a condition in which amphibian larvae mature to a reproductive stage without undergoing metamorphosis for land-based adult life.) So, the other thing that I kind of want to talk about, because this is a Zen Habitats show do we have a product that's appropriate for axolotls? Because they're aquatic, we don't unfortunately. But maybe this is an opportunity that we can kind of talk about morphed axolotls and what happens to the ones that do lose their gills and become terrestrial salamanders.
Yes. So as of lately, I want to say this started a couple of years ago. There was a breakthrough in a way of where these axolotls were morphing due to their genetics. Now everybody knows, or at least a lot of keepers know, that axolotls are not pure. They have some tiger salamander DNA in them. And because of the coefficient issue is, whereas there was only a very small group that was brought in from Mexico to here, that they had to use something different to make the gene pool a little wider and broad. So, tiger salamanders were introduced into their genetics. Now, most of the time, these axolotls are going to morph. You know, the tiger salamander DNA isn't activated. That hormone isn't activated enough for it to work. But lately we're thinking that there is a species of salamander. I don't know what you want to call it, andersoni? People are thinking that maybe some andersoni has gotten into the gene pool and is allowing these axolotls to morph naturally. And while iodine is typically to blame for that, it's going to be definitely more on the genetic basis of it happening naturally. These folk having iodine, the fatality rate on that, it's almost 100%. The ones that morph naturally, they're going to live a very long time. They're going to live their normal lifespan. It's not going to affect them as long as it's proper husbandry. And then with that, a lot of our products would actually be good for these guys. Our four by two-by-two PVC Zen Habitats enclosure would be good for morphed axolotls.
I do love salamanders. Terrestrial salamanders are so cool, but like axolotls, axolotls are absolutely amazing. I love the aquatic buddies. So basically, you're saying people purposely were morphing their axolotls with iodine, is that what was happening?
So, a lot of the times, especially with scientists who were researching them for medical purposes and such, would introduce iodine to show them morphing and to kind of study that because they want to learn more about their regenerative abilities. And morphing is kind of a part of that. So, I mean, I'm sure that there's a couple of weirdoes out there who have tried it.
We are 100% are not for you to go out and try to morph your axolotl let them be axolotls in their tanks. They're fine. If you do have one that just genetically morphs, then you know, you just have to make sure that you're ready to provide a terrestrial habitat for your new terrestrial salamander. So, let's talk about some questions from our fans. So, the top one is what do axolotls eat? Because they're not a fish. And, you know, I think of feeding, you know, other salamanders, lots of like crickets and stuff like that. What about these guys?
So, axolotls tend to really do well with European Nightcrawlers. That happens to be one of the biggest things and you can get a lot of that stuff at bait shops. They like red wheelers, some of them are not too keen on it, but I mean, they'll definitely eat it and it's not bad for them. Salmon pellets are also good and a lot of people do specially make them just for axolotls and those are super good and fine as well. Blood worms and stuff like that are fine as long as they're a treat.
Yeah, I know my guys love blood worms as a treat. They go crazy for them. I actually recently reached out to you, Shelby, because I had one young guy who was gobbling up way too many and I panicked. So, I reached out to Shelby's and she's the expert that I know, and I'm like “oh, my god, am I going to kill this guy” He's just a fatty. It's okay. Some of them have a really big appetite for sure. Since we are talking about aquariums, what is the proper size tank or for an axolotl?
So, the proper tank for an axolotl is going to be a 20 gallon and then you're going to want to add an additional ten gallons for every other axolotl you add with them. However, bigger is always better. We always suggest getting bigger, but that's the minimum requirement.
Yeah. Here in the office, we did have our axolotl in a 20 gallon long, but he's a big guy and I gave him a 40 gallon because I think he deserves it. And then my axolotls at home, I have three of them in a 120 gallon. So, they definitely have the space that they need. So, another question. Are there any other weird little axolotl facts that you want to share with me?
So, a lot of people have seen these split-colored axolotls. And there's actually a difference. Some people will call them chimera. Now, the thing is, they're not chimeras, because chimera is a manmade thing, as split mosaics are a natural occurring thing. So, when they are born and they have that like black and white, black on one side, white on the other, that is completely natural and it's super cool especially to see them in person.
Oh, I've never seen one in person but oh, that's a dream for sure. I'm like, I'm not collecting the rainbow, but like I have a wild type, an albino, a melanoid, and a leucistic. Now I need a mosaic just to cap it off.
They’re gorgeous. Axolotl genetics are super important as well as keeping track of lineage of them because how small their gene pool actually is. This will help them in the pet trade from fatal genetics. Such as short toe syndrome, which is pretty nasty. We've definitely helped some people with that and it's really sad. Yeah, but this can be completely avoided if people will just keep track of where their animals come from, especially with axolotls.
So, this short toe syndrome is because of inbreeding. Is that what happens?
Short toe syndrome is a lethal gene that is that recessive, but some of them carry it and don't show visual signs of it. But then you have some within the clutch that show the visual signs. And sometimes it's really hard to tell until they're older. So, then you get this axolotl who looks kind of okay, maybe a little funny when he's little, and then he grows up and he just looks like a giant balloon when he's older.
Oh, yeah. Oh, wow, I have seen that. So, okay, I think we went over some really great things about axolotls. Now I want to talk to you about some more personal things about your career and advice that you'd have for others. So, my first question is what advice would you give someone wanting to pursue a career similar to yours? Or maybe we'll focus specifically on axolotl breeding. What would you say for someone who wants to get started? What should they do?
Research, research, research. Find a breeder who is reputable and that can mentor you. That is definitely my number one thing with new people wanting to get into something like this. Do it right.
Absolutely. And the best way to learn is from people who have been able to do it successfully. Is there a common myth about your profession that you want to debunk?
That it's a really easy thing to do. That breeding axolotls is easy. You know, a lot of people. Will sit there and say, “oh, you breed axolotls.” Well, yes and no. So, it's easy to start it. But then the work comes after that.
Well, you have to remember these critters are laying like 400 to 600 eggs at a time, and then you have 400 to 600 tiny little baby axolotls that you need to take care of.
You know, it's water changes twice a day. It's feeding light foods because babies won't accept anything but living foods. So, you have to culture your own live food, it's tedious. That's a lot. And I definitely respect a lot of people who do it.
That's a lot of work. What do you think are the biggest challenges you're facing in your current projects and how are you tackling them right now?
Having patience, honestly. I’m waiting for my grow outs to…grow out, you know. I want them to just grow! I'm one of those people that when I want it done, I want it done now.
Especially when you're dealing with live animals. I know you can't rush nature, but you're just like, just grow up please! Well, I think we went over a lot of great stuff about axolotls. I think we covered some interesting points that needed to be touched upon. So that's really great and I hope that you enjoyed being on the show talking with me and that we answered all of our fan’s questions about axolotls. Again, big thank you for joining me.