Axolotl owners often want to know the answer:
Are aquarium snails and axolotls compatible?
Is it safe or okay to mix them?
Here's what you need to know before attempting to put them together.
In this post I try to clear up some common objections and myths about snails so you can make an informed decision.
Will Aquarium Snails Injure an Axolotl?
Some are concerned that the snails will crawl onto the axolotl, who is peacefully sitting at the bottom, and begin to chew on them and hurt them, apparently trying to get at their slime coat.
Is this the case?
For the snails commonly found in the home aquaria, such as:
... I don't believe so for a bit.
That's because aquarium snails are generally herbivorous, with perhaps the exception of some carnivorous snails such as the assassin snail.
Herbivorous snails are attracted to decaying DEAD matter only (plant or animal).
They may happen to crawl on top of an animal of another species if it spends long periods of time at the bottom (as is the case with our axolotls).
But that's because they're just in their way and they're trying to go the shortest distance between two points.
Unless your axolotl is dead, herbivorous snails are not interested in chewing on them because they are not part of their diet and are not attracted to live tissue.
Some species of suckerfish can, have and WILL affix themselves to the side of the axolotl and hurt them, sucking on their tasty slime coat and even chewing into the muscle for food (yuck).
That includes fish such as catfish and plecos - so please don't keep those in with your axie.
You can even find ample photos online of the damage they have caused to the poor babies. :(
To this day I have never seen evidence of my own or anyone else's axolotl actually being harmed by a snail.
Yes, they may crawl on them, but they are not attracted to their living tissues and will not chew on them.
Most of the time the axolotl will hop out of the way immediately if they sense a snail bump into them, much less try to crawl on them.
To date I have NEVER seen any evidence from any axolotl owner that a snail damaged their axie.
Can Snails give Axolotls Disease?
One objection is that snails will transmit dangerous parasites or bacteria into the tank and be a vector for illness.
But there is no known parasite that uses the snail as a vector to transmit disease to axolotls.
Safe to say there is no more risk adding a new snail in your tank than adding a new plant.
(It's not a bad idea to quarantine your plants and snails though.)
Are Snails a High Bioload?
Some say snails are so messy they will foul the tank by adding a bunch of waste to the tank.
So when they see that stray baby snail that hitchhiked into their tank, they set out on a war path to destroy it by all means possible.
Actually, nothing could be further from the truth.
Snails do not add any more of a bioload than what they are fed.
If your snails live off the existing food sources in the tank, they are only helping to further break it down so the nutrients are more usable for the plants - not polluting the water.
If you overfeed your snails, that could cause things to get off with your water quality.
But snails are scavengers and don't need much if any supplemental feedings.
Will Axolotls Choke on the Snails?
With the above in mind...
Let's ask why the sudden panic at finding a little bladder snail (that probably hitchhiked on some plants) suddenly scooting around the tank near the axolotl's mouth?
If they do not blame the poor snail for spreading awful diseases or polluting the ecosystem of their tank, people are worried their axolotl will either:
- Choke on the snail
- Suffer gut impaction from swallowing the snail
But you know what?
After being digested, the shells of small snails such as tadpole snails and baby ramshorn snails pass through without issue.
Some people may post photos of snail shells their axolotl has pooped after being ill, assuming the axolotl was sick from eating the snails.
The problem I see with that is correlation vs. causation.
The axolotl may well have been sick, but it's hard to prove it was the snails that caused it, or if it just happened to have eaten some and been sick from some other cause.
That's just my personal take on that.
Larger snails may be a choking hazard, such as the dime to nickel sized mysteries or ramshorns, but for one reason:
The axolotl, assuming it is well fed, will only be actively forcing themselves to swallow these snails to use them as a gastrolith.
In tanks equipped with proper gastroliths for axolotls, the axolotls will NOT force themselves to swallow these snails, a fact I know from personal experience.
They know when it is too big.
Only when they don't have anything else will they cram it down their throats.
I have observed my own pet axolotls taking in such snails in their mouths - only to spit them out again when they realize they are too big to swallow.
This is because they have access to proper sized gastroliths aren't desperate.
If for whatever reason you decide not to allow your axolotl to have gastroliths, it is not a bad idea to prevent medium sized snails from living with it and stick with snails that are larger than the axolotl's head.
Mystery snails (pomacea bridgesii) and apple snails (Pomacea canaliculata) are a great choice for that.
However, tiny little bladder snails and the babies of many other freshwater snail species can pass through just fine.
These "pest snails" have softer shells and are quite miniscule in size.
Read more about gastroliths and gravel for axolotls here.
The Benefits of Snails
Why would you want to keep snails (like the species discussed earlier) in your axolotl's aquarium?
There are several benefits.
- They scavenge on uneaten food (leftover pellets, rotting food, dead worms), helping to keep the tank cleaner.
- They break down organic waste, helping to keep the tank more self-sustaining and nutrients more available to the plants in the tank
- They can be of excellent use in cleaning algae from the walls and surfaces inside the tank
- They help to preserve water quality by being your tank's clean-up crew
- They are gentle and peaceful to the tank's inhabitants
- They tend to be a supplemental food source
Obviously you don't have to have them to have an axolotl tank, but they can be advantageous.
Some people worry about the snails overpopulating.
For tiny snails, in the axolotl tank, the good news is that is very unlikely to happen as they are used for a food source.
Even if they end up populating at a higher rate than expected, their population can be further curbed by hand picking out the extras here and there.
And unless they are starving, with a few exceptions, aquarium snails do not eat healthy aquarium plant leaves, so don't worry about that :)
Snails help to keep your tank in balance by doing something the axolotls do not usually do well, and that is foraging.
Isn't it amazing how it all is connected?
Other snails that lay eggs above the waterline (like mysteries and giant apple snails) can be kept under control by removing and freezing the eggs before throwing them away.
Axolotls & Snails: Together in Nature
It is true:
Snails are actually a part of the ecosystem in the wild, where axolotls used to live.
... Snails comprised part of their normal diet in the wild (source).
"The axolotl is carnivorous, consuming small prey such as molluscs, worms, insects, other arthropods, and small fish in the wild. Axolotls locate food by smell, and will "snap" at any potential meal, sucking the food into their stomachs with vacuum force... (source)"
Molluscs axolotls would have access to in their environment would be freshwater clams and snails.
Tiger salamanders, close relatives of the axolotl (so much so that axolotls have much DNA from them) feed on freshwater clams in their aquatic stage by ingesting the entire clam, then regurgitating the shell.
The most accurate recreations of their natural biotope include snails such as physa sp, which includes the tadpole or bladder snail.
These snails are quite small in size and readily pass through the digestive tract without causing obstructions.
It might be argued:
"The axolotl is so far removed from it's wild ancestors, conditions in captivity are something it has adapted to and it is no longer able to live how it once did."
In other words...
"We are breeding axolotls to be so WEAK that they can't even survive with snails anymore - their natural prey."
Something is seriously wrong!
At Fantaxies, we believe in breeding axolotls that are able to live and thrive in the presence of snails.
If an axolotl can't properly eat it's natural food source, it isn't meant to survive!
Our lotls, from hatchlings to breeding adults, are housed with snails and not only survive, they LOVE IT.
They digest them day in and day out all the way from juvenile to adulthood - no issues.
We must keep the axolotl population we have in captivity strong.
What are the Best Snails for Axolotls?
For nursery and teeny baby tanks, Ramshorn snails are excellent as they are much bigger than the baby axolotl can eat and help clean up all the uneaten food.
For juvenile and adult axolotl tanks without gastroliths, snails that are either very tiny or very large are ideal.
These would include bladder/tadpole snails (those don't get big at all) or mystery/apple snails (which get golfball size or larger.)
Besides being beautiful and interesting to watch, they offer the benefits listed above.
In tanks with gastroliths, there really are no limits in terms of readily available freshwater aquarium snails.
Seriously, don't be paranoid - axolotls are not as dumb as most people think they are :)
I have kept many snails with my axolotls without issues for a long time now.
If anything... the snails are the ones that will get hurt by the axolotl.
Most nerites are left alone, however once in a while the axolotl will catch one and eat it.
It literally crushes the nerite snail's shell to bits, spits it out and sucks up the meat.
They do the same thing with ramshorns.
Ramshorns and other soft-shelled snails like bladder/pond snails don't proliferate well in an axolotl tank.
Every so often I'll find the remains of a mauled shell in my tank, which was clearly a loser to the axolotl.
It amazes me how they will destroy even thick hard shells.
The snail they do not bother with is the mystery snails, even small ones.
I have never had any baby, juvenile or adult mystery snail be eaten by an axolotl, only spit out.
At first they may be curious about them, specifically their tentacles, and yes, they may nip the snails because it resembles a worm.
But eventually they lose interest and leave them alone.
I maintain mystery snails to be one of the very best tank mates with axolotls - very few other species can coexist with them peacefully.
Some people think mystery snails won't like the cooler water of the axolotls.
In my experience, they actually do better at cooler temps and are less prone to disease.
Their shells grow slower and harder, too.
Snails will feast on stuff the axolotl is not interested in, such as rotten food and rotten vegetable matter.
So it's a win-win.
Including or not including snails in your axolotl tank is a personal choice everyone must make for themselves.
Understanding the above and taking into account your individual situation can help you to come to the best decision for your pet.
I hope this helped to get you further along the way :)