"Is my axolotl morphing?"
This can be a serious concern for many owners.
Let's look today at how it works specifically in axolotls.
We're going to cover:
- What is morphing
- If axolotls are able to morph
- How to spot signs of morphing
- Triggers for morphing
- Caring for a transitioning axolotl
- Caring for a fully morphed axolotl
So let's get started!
What is Morphing?
Morphing happens when an animal goes from being aquatic to living on land (terrestrial).
It involves a series of changes that prepares the animal for land life.
For many species, it signals the transition between a juvenile and the final adult form of the animal.
Some animals remain semi-aquatic after morphing, such as newts.
This means they can swim and breathe underwater...
... As well as breathe air and walk on land.
Pretty neat, right?
Can Axolotls Morph?
Yes, they can.
The good news is for axolotl owners:
Morphing is VERY rare.
It is highly unusual for axolotls to morph but it can happen under certain conditions.
They look so different than how they did appear underwater that many people do not even recognize them as being an axolotl, but mistake them for some kind of land newt or salamander!
Axolotls normally are fully aquatic and remain so for their entire lives.
Why don't they normally morph?
The reason is...
Most axolotls have a genetic mutation that prevents them from morphing.
This is called neotony.
Being neotonic means the animal remains in a juvenile state for their entire lives.
They still age - they just don't reach their final form.
It's a trait that's very unique and one of the special abilities of the Mexican water dragon.
It is probably safe to say that morphing has mostly been bred out of most axolotls sold in the pet trade today due to the diligence of breeders in trying to raise animals that remain in the water.
Signs of Morphing in Axolotls
A morphed axolotl looks a bit like a tiger salamander, only with a bigger head in proportion to their body.
There are some signs to watch out for so you can be aware if your axolotl is morphing or not.
(Note: Just one of these signs alone may not mean the axolotl is morphing - it may have something else going on. But when several of these signs are spotted there is a good chance this is happening to your axie!)
Here are some characteristics of an axie transitioning to go on land:
1. Bulging eyes
The eyes of the axolotl will start to look like they are protruding further out.
This can give the animal a bit of a "pop-eyed" look.
2. Developing eyelids
You may notice folds of skin developing above the water dragon's eyes.
These are eyelids, which will prepare the animal to blink once it begins to live on land.
3. Thickening back legs
The axolotl has rather skinny, spindly legs while it lives underwater.
Due to the nature of being in water as opposed to in the open air, its legs do not need to be as strong as the water helps make it lighter.
Once it emerges from the tank, this changes, and its legs have to thicken up to support the extra pressure.
4. Skin changes
You may notice the axolotl starts to have a more intense pattern or darker tone on its skin as it morphs.
5. Less webbed feet
The skin between the toes may start to become less connected, resulting in a less froglike, webfoot appearance and showing thicker, more pronounced individual toes.
6. Loss of gills
The axolotl begins to absorb its gills, not only the feathery parts (filaments) but the gill stalks themselves).
It will no longer need them once it begins to go on land, as it will rely instead on its lungs to breathe.
7. Receding Fins
The tail of the axolol will no longer be used to propel itself through the water as it once did.
Like its gills, it absorbs them into its body.
8. Changes in Activity
Not only does a morphed axolotl look totally different, it also acts totally different.
This can make it difficult for owners as they feel like their beloved pet has been replaced with something else!
But it is still your pet, it is only changing its normal habits because it has to adapt to a new style of life.
Causes for Morphing
Understanding WHY an axolot might morph can help us along the path to prevention.
One of the biggest culprits is exposure to iodine.
Iodine creates changes in the brain of the axolotl - the production of the hormone called thyroxin - can set the axolotl on the course of a morphing journey.
Iodine is found in some brands of salt, some sources of food, as well as in injections administered by scientists who study the morphing patterns of the animal.
Avoiding iodine exposure is a good idea if you want to keep your axie in the water!
Another cause is thought to be genetic.
Because axolotls have been hybridized with species of tiger salamander in the past (which carry genes for morphing), it is thought that these genes may be lurking in some axolotls around today.
The good news is morphing is a bit of a self-erasing gene.
A morphed axolotl is reportedly much more difficult to breed - many have never succeeded.
This means animals that carry and display outward signs of that gene (i.e. morphing) do not generally pass on this trait to their offspring for the simple fact that they do not reproduce easily.
How to Care for a Morphing Axolotl (Transition Phase)
How you care for your morphing axolotl is very important.
It's a delicate time that requires proper care.
Without the right treatment during this transition, the axolotl can perish!
- Remove the axolotl from the tank - It needs to have shallow water so it can get to the surface with ease to breathe. (No more fins or gills, remember?) A tub is ideal.
- Provide a gradual landmass - It will need to be able to climb out easily from the water, such as a stone.
- Put a hide on the landmass - It will help reduce the stress
- Cover the container with a lid - You don't want it to climb out and escape, which morphed axies are much more prone to doing!
How to Care for a Morphed Axolotl
Axolotls will need a much different environment to live in after they leave the water.
No more aquarium - it will need a vivarium that can be kept humid.
(Don't forget that lid - it will help with the humidity and prevent escape.)
Morphed salamanders will like to dig around and hide, so they will need some kind of soil or substrate to burrow in.
Their diet can stay pretty similar, as they will still eat earthworms, though they may also be fed new foods other salamanders enjoy like crickets and mealworms.
It's not the end of the world if your axolotl morphs, and it can still be a great pet.
The good news is this is very uncommon and you will likely never have to deal with this, but it is always good to know what to do just in case.