Why is my axolotl doing [fill in the blank]?

This post is an attempt to cover the more common, and some less common, behaviors of this mysterious creature.

What’s normal?

What’s cause for concern?

Keep reading to find out!

Axolotl Behavior Identification

This is by no means a complete list.

It’s not going to always be a totally accurate one either, due to the individual personality of your lotl.

But it should be enough to get you going 🙂

1. Nose Down

Description:

The axolotl has its nose down while in a standing position, head tilted, moving head around bottom of tank, looking as though it is extremely focused.

What it means:

This is looking and scanning around for food.

The axolotl has sensed there may be something yummy available and is scoping out the area!

Will a tasty worm be found?

How about a delicious pellet?

Once the axolotl finds its food, it will snap.

2. Walking backwards.

What it means:

Does your axolotl look like it’s backing up like a car in reverse?

It’s usually one of two things:

The axolotl may be feel intimidated… or not hungry anymore.

If you’re trying to give your axolotl some food and it starts backing up, that’s its way of saying “I’m full now!”

3. Gill Kicking

The axolotl is kicking its gills with its back feet.

What it means:

Axolotls may use their hind legs to kick their gills like a dog with fleas scratching itself.

This is usually from irritation, such as poor water quality or bacterial or parasitic disease.

The first step is to perform a water test and make sure everything checks out as normal.

Check for other accompanying symptoms as well.

4. Hopping

Description:

The axolotl is hopping/jumping up suddenly.

What it means:

Young axolotls especially do this when they snap at food.

They have a powerful sudden suction created to take in their meal which can make them jump up.

Continual hopping without food available may mean your axolotl has the hiccups!

5. Mouth Pumping

Description:

The axolotl’s mouth is strongly pumping open & closed, sometimes violently.

What it means:

This is usually the axolotl heaving.

It could be they are about to regurgitate…

… or there is something stuck in their mouth they are trying to dislodge.

Another possibility is an injury on the inside of the mouth.

Another possibility is the axolotl is coughing.

This is often due to a sudden change in parameters or water quality issues.

6. Head Standing

Description:

Head standing – standing on front legs with tail angled up.

What it means:

This is often from constipation.

The methane gas builds up and causes their rear ends to float.

May be accompanied by back legs going straight up.

Once the axolotl passes waste or gas (or both), it should return to a normal standing position.

7. Gulping air

Description:

The axolotl seems peacefully at rest on the bottom, then starts swimming up suddenly to the top.

Once it reaches the water surface (at which time you may notice its back legs wing up to the sides like it is doing the splits), it grabs a gulp and dives back down.

What it means:

This is the axolotl taking its regular breath of air.

Did you know axolotls have a pair of lungs and must breathe frequently as part of their respiration?

When it goes up to the surface to gulp air, it is a perfectly normal behavior.

The axolotl may gulp for air more frequently than normal if something is off with the water quality.

8. Toots

Description:

The axolotl releases air bubbles from its back end.

What it means:

It’s just gas!

Sometimes may appear to have floating issues, which are relieved by releasing the air bubbles.

9. Gills flapping

Description:

This behavior is observed when the gills flick down then up, about every 3-9 seconds.

What it means:

This is expected behavior in the axolotl.

Gill flicking is how the axolotl helps take in more oxygen.

By flicking its gills, the filaments swirl the water around and help to take in more oxygen, which is especially useful when the water is low in oxygen and/or stagnant.

However, they will do this normally regardless of the dissolved oxygen in the water.

Only if the axolotl is flapping its gills more rapidly than normal could it be an indication of some underlying issue.

10. Thrashing around

Description:

The axolotl violently throws its body against things in the tank, possibly jerking or kicking.

What it means:

This behavior is a bit tricky to identify, because an axolotl can thrash in several ways which mean different things.

Some possibilities are:

  • Irritation from parasites, fungus, poor water quality or irritants in the water
  • Nervous system disorder, such as a possible seizure or other neurological problem
  • Caught on a foreign object
  • Aggression from other tank mates
  • Frightened (the axolotl darts around wildly)

11. Gills curled forward

Description:

The tips of the axolotl’s gills are pointed forward, towards its snout.

What it means:

Sometimes the axolotl has really long gills and they will naturally “fold” over a bit while the axolotl is at rest.

In some cases it may mean the axolotl is feeling stressed by something, such as poor water quality or disease.

12. Tail curled

Description:

The axolotl’s tail is not straight back, but comes around.

What it means:

Sometimes the axolotl will slightly bend its tail as part of its normal position.

If just the tip of the tail is curled, that is what you should be more concerned about.

That can indicate stress.

13. Holding still

Description:

The axolotl does not seem to be moving much or to be very interested in life.

What it means:

This is usually an axolotl being an axolotl. They don’t move much generally, especially the older they get.

Unless it is accompanied with other symptoms, generally nothing to worry about.

It is probably just waiting for a little prey to swim by so it can snap at it!

Conclusion

Axolotls are fascinating creatures, and it can really help you as the owner to know what to expect, especially as a first time axolotl keeper.

I hope this post helped lay down some basics on axolotl behavior for you 🙂