The adorable amphibians called axolotls are having a moment. You may have seen them in the game Minecraft. Or you may have encountered plush versions at stores. Live ones can be found all over social media, too, with their colorful, fringed external gills and faces that appear to be smiling.
According to media reports, the demand for axolotls has increased exponentially in recent months. They’ve even become “designer” animals, with some bred to feature a modified protein that makes them glow under fluorescent light.
People find these salamanders super cute and endlessly fascinating because of their ability to regenerate limbs, resistance to cancer, breeding dances, and the fact that they keep juvenile characteristics into adulthood (a condition called neotony).
But here’s something you may not have known, given how many of these amphibians are easily available as pets: axolotls are critically endangered. In fact, they are now found in just one area in the world: Lake Xochimilco in the Valley of Mexico; they inhabit waterways and canals in Mexico City. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) says there are between 50-1,000 mature individuals in the wild, and the population is severely fragmented. Numbers continue to go down.
This fact confirms research Lincoln Park Zoo scientists have done with primates and other charismatic animals. Their work shows that when people see depictions of animals in unnatural settings, they are more likely to believe the animals make good pets and that they are not endangered in the wild. They have also shown that younger generations—like the ones playing Minecraft—are more likely to want non-domestic animals as pets.
While zoo scientists have not specifically studied axolotls in this context, it’s clear that the species is experiencing pressure from being a desirable commodity in the pet trade. In the case of axolotls, though, they’ve been such a big part of the pet trade that an influx of axolotls into human homes probably won’t affect the ecosystem from which they came. But other complications exist.
When exotic animals become popular as pets, people often dive into pet ownership without doing the research to determine the proper care it needs. Axolotls have very specific diets. They also get quite large. As fully aquatic animals, they require large aquariums and significant biological filtration to thrive. Their comfortable temperature is colder than that of most typical aquariums, which means some kind of refrigeration unit may be needed. Failure to meet any of these basic needs can have a negative impact on axolotl health.
Pet axolotls may also be bred together, either on purpose or by accident. Aside from issues of inbreeding, this causes overpopulation problems. Since these animals can lay 1,000 eggs at a time, some areas have seen a proliferation of axolotls in rescues and pet stores. Given that axolotls require such specific care, pet owners don’t always want to have such large numbers of them on hand.
And this leads to another major problem: the discarding of unwanted axolotls in areas outside their native range. Releasing them into wetlands can have devastating effects on local waters because they may outcompete other species that are struggling to survive. Plus, they can spread disease. These are some reasons having axolotls is illegal in several states, including California.
If you’re thinking of getting an axolotl as a pet—or any species that isn’t considered domesticated—think long and hard about whether or not you can provide the animal in question with the right kind of care. Consider what you would do if you ended up with unintended offspring. And, if you decide that an axolotl isn’t the pet for you, you can always come to the zoo to see them at Regenstein Small Mammal-Reptile House instead.