For many people, the first time they ever see an axolotl is something they will never forget. These salamanders, with their feathery external gills and long tadpole-like tail, don’t even look real.
But axolotls are all too real. They are also incredibly unusual animals. As the San Diego Zoo explains, the axolotl stands apart from other salamanders in that it does not go through metamorphosis.
Metamorphosis is a process where salamanders start their life in water and transition in adulthood to living on land. But axolotls are what biologists call “neonotic.”
They keep certain immature features throughout life, including staying in the water as adults and retaining their long tails, soft bodies, and external gill systems.
This brings up an obvious question many new axolotl keepers have – can axolotls eat algae? Are algae nutritious and safe for axolotls?
Many aquatic species do eat algae, but axolotls are not in this category. In fact, axolotls are pure carnivores and eat only meat (animal protein). In this article, learn everything you need to know about axolotls and algae.
Do Axolotls Eat Algae? Why Or Why Not?
Axolotls only eat animal protein for their diet. These salamanders get all the nutrition they will ever need from meat.
Usually, as Axolotl.org explains, axolotls take in food by eating brine shrimp, daphnia, ghost shrimp, bloodworms, earthworms, blackworms, nightcrawlers, and protein pellets.
Axolotls, like all salamanders, will hunt whatever they can catch when they get hungry. This is why it is so important for you, the keeper, to control their diet and every aspect of your aquaculture (aquarium life) to make sure your axolotl only eats what is healthy and safe.
Since axolotls are carnivores and algae is a form of plant matter, it is not safe for your axolotl to feed on algae.
The one possible exception is if your axolotl eats a prey animal that feeds on algae. In this case, even if algae is still in the digestive tract of the prey animal, it will not harm your axolotl at all.
Why Axolotls Can Cause a Lot of Algae to Grow In Their Tank
However, there is one known problem when it comes to making sure your axolotl does not eat algae.
As Reptiles Magazine points out, axolotls are messy eaters!
Axolotls feed when movement triggers their snapping motion. Axolotls don’t have the best eyesight and they can really only see bigger movements well. So when something moves right near their eyes, they will open up their big mouths instinctively and try to grasp it.
Then the axolotl will use their stumpy teeth to try to hold onto what they have caught for long enough to swallow it. They may then end up spitting out and swallowing the same prey animal multiple times before they manage to get it all the way down.
Sometimes axolotls do this to soften up the animal or break it up into smaller chunks. A good example here is a large nightcrawler.
Even though axolotls can easily grow to a foot or longer, nightcrawlers are pretty sizable prey. So they may go through the grab-bite-spit motion several times until they get the nightcrawler all the way down.
This means axolotls can be very messy eaters. The more waste is in the tank, the more likely algae is to grow if your tank conditions are right for that to happen.
What Kind of Tank Conditions Can Cause Algae to Grow?
The next logical question then becomes, what can cause algae to grow and bloom more readily?
As this thread from the UK Reptile Forums highlights, the biggest issues that can lead to algae overgrowth typically involves these elements:
- Lighting and bulb choice.
- Tank filtration.
- Husbandry and cleaning.
This YouTube video from an axolotl keeper perfectly captures the challenges you may go through getting these three critical elements into proper balance.
Lighting and bulb choice
In a wild setting, axolotls are accustomed to dim conditions. They spend much of their time hunting amongst wild plants and along the bottom for food to eat.
While strong, bright light might make it easier for you to observe and enjoy your pet axolotl, this isn’t necessarily the right choice for your axolotl and can cause stress.
It can also foster algae growth, especially if the bulb is strong or emits heat and is on for more than eight hours per day.
Because axolotls are messy eaters and produce a lot of waste matter, it is important to choose a good tank filtration system that doesn’t require any chemicals and can handle a larger volume of waste matter.
Husbandry and cleaning
While it isn’t always fun to have to do partial water changes as often as daily and clean up after each feeding, your axolotl needs this type of care to stay healthy.
Cleaning the tank can help nip an algae problem before it starts to get out of hand.
Is It Okay to Add Algae Eaters, Catfish, or Snails to Control Algae in Your Axolotl Tank?
This might seem like a perfect solution at first glance. In fact, it is one of the more common mistakes made by first-time axolotl keepers.
Unfortunately, algae eaters and catfish are highly predatory and many would just as soon feed on your axolotl as on the algae.
Algae eaters and catfish will also prey on fish and other tank mates, sucking on gills and tails and causing stress, damage, or death.
If your axolotl tries to eat the algae eater or catfish, this in turn can cause intense internal damage, blockage, or death. Catfish in particular have spiky spines that may puncture your axolotl and be fatal.
Once installed in the tank, snails are likely to breed prolifically, which can cause a different sort of over-population in your tank. They are also targeted for your axolotl’s feeding behaviors and this may be a danger to your pet.
Axolotls cannot digest anything with a hard outer shell or exoskeleton because they don’t have any way to break it down. Snail shells can get caught in your axolotl’s gills or throat, causing choking, suffocation, or even fatality.
If your axolotl does manage to swallow a snail, it may then cause an intestinal blockage or worse.
For this reason, as Caudata’s axolotl forum explains, it is best not to try to rely on algae eaters, catfish, or snails to clean algae overgrowth out of your axolotl’s tank.
What to Do to Guard Against Algae Growth in Axolotl Tank?
As PetMD explains, axolotls have very soft, fragile skin and no external protection system.
The axolotl’s external gills are also incredibly vulnerable to damage. This makes keeping any kind of live animal that eats algae out of the question. Either that animal will be eaten by your axolotl or vice versa.
The best way to keep algae from growing in your axolotl’s tank is to make sure you place the aquarium out of the path of any direct sunlight.
By maintaining the cold, dimly lit aquarium conditions that axolotls prefer, you not only protect your axolotl from predatory tank mates and invasive algae overgrowth, but you also provide the environment these animals prefer.
It is smart to establish the proper lighting, filtration, and husbandry habits your axolotl needs right from day one, supervising all feedings and doing prompt tank cleanings after each meal to remove any algae food.