Aquascape for axolotls

Axolotl Habitat: How to Make a Natural Biotope Tank

Axolotl Habitat: How to Make a Natural Biotope Tank

Have you ever wondered what the habitat of the axolotl is like?

Do you want to make your animal live as natural a life as possible?

I have some tips to share with you on doing just that.

It is called making a biotope.

A biotope is an aquarium that tries to mimic the natural environment found somewhere in a specific location.

I am modifying this to what is commonly available to the aquarium hobbyist.

Why Bother Creating an Axolotl Biotope?

There are many good reasons.

The first and foremost, which is something talked about in other posts, is that axolotls thrive best when their environment is most like the one they would have if they lived in the wild.

They are perfectly adapted to live in such an environment.

Keeping axolotls in a more unnatural setup can work, but it can require compensation for missing elements.

What do I mean?

Let's start with the health aspect.

For example, axolotl owners often find themselves struggling with fungus issues.

They soon learn they need to add something to the tank, such as dead leaves or salt solutions.

And that usually helps the problem, because it is pointing back to the original habitat conditions.

Tannins from elements in a pond are antibacterial and antifungal.

Then there is the animal's happiness to consider.

While a bare bottom tank may be needed in some situations when maximum sterility is needed (such as breeding or raising babies)...

... For everyday living, this is arguably unnatural for the animal and possibly depriving them.

The animals have something interesting to do all day if they can hunt and play as though they were really living in the wild.

I'm not saying regular axolotl tanks are bad, by any means!

I'm just saying they may not afford as much in terms of benefits to the Mexican walking fish.

Steps to Recreating the Axolotl's Natural Habitat

While not as much is known about the exact Lake Xochimilco of Mexico City (which is the home of our ambystoma mexicana axolotl)...

... We do have more information on nearby areas that also house other axolotls.

Specifically, Lake Pátzcuaro.

This lake is the home of ambystoma dumerilii, which is one of 17 axolotl species found in Mexico.

Their needs are very similar if not identical.

Using the efforts of those who have studied this and other nearby lakes, this can help us to recreate the axolotl's natural habitat.

1. Recreating Axolotl Habitat Substrate

It all starts with the substrate, which is what goes on the bottom of the aquarium.

There's no one right way to do this.

I'll give you some options and you can figure out which is best for your individual needs.

In case you are worried about gravel and axolotls choking on such things, please see this post.

Method One

Flourite sand is the perfect consistency when mixed with fine sand.

It is a clay-based material.

Below the Flourite, 1-2" of top soil will help to buffer the pH (and nourish plants).

On top of the Flourite, course sand or very fine gravel can be lightly sprinkled.

The Flourite can also be tinted and made to stretch further by mixing it with lighter tan fine sand.

Method Two

The second method is to keep it simple with a layer of sand only, topped by the natural objects that give the tank a natural bottom-of-pond feel.

You could even find a body of water near you and collect your substrate there.

Note: Please do not add anything you find outside from a local body of water without boiling it first as it can transmit disease to your axies!

Method Three

Soil can be used alone as a mud bottom substrate.

It is a bit messier and can cloud the water if disturbed...

... But is very natural and provides lots of benefits in terms of supporting good bacteria and plant growth.

The following is an example:

After the base is completed, adding other elements such as dead leaves (oak, Indian almond, Catappa, Guava and Loqua are some examples), pine seeds, pine needles, cones, seed pods, sticks and rocks will help to recreat the natural lake bottom, as well as add beneficial tannins to the water.

2. Hardscape

The hardscape helps the aquarium to come together visually.

Smooth driftwood, smooth sticks and smooth rocks all are excellent hardscape additions.

These can be arranged to provide natural hides for the salamanders.

Driftwood often needs time to soak in order to sink and to release the abundance of tannins that ordinarily darken the water.

Most rocks are fine for aquarium use, simply boiling them will sterilize them of any contaminants.

It is beneficial if these rocks offer some pH buffering capabilities, as that will help offset the decaying matter dropping the pH.

We want to keep the water between 7-8 pH.


A crushed coral can be added to the filter to help buffer the water and counteract all these tannins.

3. Live Plants

We want plants in the natural axolotl tank!

They offer many advantages.

Elodea is a fantastic plant for axolotls for several reasons:

  • Fast growing
  • Water purifying
  • Highly oxygenating
  • Provides coverage from light

It is found naturally in abundance in the Pátzcuaro lake.

Side note:

This plant is also a perfect place for female axolotls to deposit their eggs.

Floating plants are also a great idea, such as water lettuce, water lily, pennywort, water hyacinth and duckweed.

There are others that can work well too.

Floating plants are fantastic for sucking out nutrients from the water and keeping it clean.

In some cases, such as aquaponics, plants are used in and of themselves as an entire filtration method.

4. Fauna

Axolotls can do well with those of their own kind.

In addition:

For a natural habitat, the following additions will help complete the ecosystem:

  • Pond snails
  • Dwarf Mexican Crayfish
  • Amano shrimp
  • Ghost shrimp
  • Tadpoles (food source)
  • Scuds
  • Small coldwater fish (minnows, skiffas, mosquito fish, etc.)

Shrimp and snails are beneficial for algae removal and breaking down excess nutrients and biofilms.

5. Filtration

Let's not forget about filtration!

It is generally a good idea to have a filter on the tank to keep the water circulating, clear and clean.

There are many kinds of filters, but you may find less is needed in a natural habitat recreation.

This is because there is already so much nutrient recycling going on by the small creatures living in the water and by the plants.


Keeping the water more shallow than deep is a good idea; axolotls like shallow water and it gives more room for growing plants above the water surface.

Wrapping it Up

Creating an axolotl habitat can be a fun and rewarding experience.

Being creative and resourceful, you can make an environment for your animals to live in that is stimulating and advantageous to their health as well.

Hopefully this post inspired you to think outside the norm - thanks for reading!

Reading next

Can You have an Axolotl as a Pet? What You Should Know
Leucistic Axolotl Morph: Everything You Need to Know

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