06/21/11- I have lots of unrelated interests that I periodically revisit; they "flare up" every so often in a flurry of activity before receding or becoming a part of daily life. Aquamania is like that: I've had my Elephant Nose fish, Baby Whale and overgrown Chinese Algae Eater since around 2001. Needless to say, I've been feeding them daily and taking care of them for many years. However, they haven't been a major daily focus of my life, and I never buy them birthday presents or new toys. Same for the pond fish.


My latest "flare up" has deep roots, back to post-college days when I had a tank of newts. They were fairly common at pet stores back then, but recently it occurred to me that I hadn't seen any at Petsmart in a long time, if ever. I was curious, so I asked an employee who confirmed that they didn't sell them. However, he told me of a small store (Zookeeper) that did.

At that store I found a single tiny tank of Peninsula newts, amongst all the other cages of (many, many) tarantulas, scorpions, & lizards. Peninsula newts are fully aquatic, so they'd be right at home in my aquarium. Cool!

peninsula newt

Still, I was expecting a little more variety, so I thought I'd check out another non-chain pet store (Aquatek) to see what they had. I was surprised to see that they had a pair of Axolotls: I'd only seen pictures of them in books before and had never seen them in the flesh, in a pet store. I knew absolutely nothing about them, but they were so unusual and prehistoric-looking... and fully aquatic. I had to have one. Within the week, I'd come back for the second one.

axolotl leucestic

Tank Mates Like I said, I didn't know anything about them when I bought them, so I started doing my Internet homework, and the learning took hold slowly. My first learning moment didn't come from the Internet though, but it should have. For nearly a week, the fish got along fine with the Axolotls, but one day I came home and saw that the fish had discovered how tasty Axolotl gills were! Chances are that they'd been whipped up into a feeding frenzy by the treat of live black worms. I don't think feathery gills look much like black worms, but I'm not a frenzied fish with poor eyesight. Although the Elephant Nose & Baby Whale have small mouths, they do have a startling ability to nibble.

baby whale fish mormyrid

I immediately partitioned the tank and drilled a small hole in the plexiglass so that the Peninsula newts could travel between the sides. They hadn't been harrassed by the fish, and didn't seem to mind being on that side of the partition. In fact, a couple of times their arms had been mistaken for food by one of the Axolotls. Despite that, they didn't seem to be particularly traumatized, and eventually, seemed to spend more time in the amphibians section.

The Substrate As I did more Internet research, I made hurried corrections. First, the substrate was wrong and dangerous, being a mix of large and small gravel bits (Axolotls suck in water to snag food, so anything nearby that fits in their mouth get sucked in, and possibly plugs their digestive tract). I replaced that mix in the amphibian section with large pebbles only. Then it occurred to me that they would grow much bigger than 5 inches, so the larger pebbles would eventually pose the same danger. In the world of Axolotl fanciers, the usual choices are between a bare tank bottom (glass) or a sand substrate. Sand is fine enough so that it passes through the digestive tract without blockage.

axolotl wild

I bought a couple bags of a white sand called Moonlight Sand-- beautiful stuff, but so incredibly fine that I thought that it would be a major pain-in-the ass. When you get it wet, it acts a bit like mud. When it's dumped into water, it takes a long time for the cloud to settle. Fine sand kicks up very easily (making water changes and vacuuming more dicey than gravel). Sand is abrasive so it's not good if it ends up in the filter motor or between moving parts.

I came across a third option in a forum: Ceramic tile. The footprint of my tank was approximately 12" x 48", and half was amphibian territory. Therefore, two 12" x 12" tiles would fit nearly perfectly, without any cutting or special fitting. Ceramic tile shares an ideal feature with a bare-bottomed tank: It's easy to clean (except for what escapes around the edges). Slate tile has a rougher texture than bare glass, and that might feel more natural to the critters. To humans, it might look more aesthetically pleasing too, if it doesn't remind you of your own home's flooring. All decorations have to sit on top, so it's not as natural as a sandy bottom with wavy dips and peaks which can be planted, and have decorations sunken in. There are always trade-offs.

axolotl wild

I eventually realized a fourth option that I've seen mentioned only a few times in forums: Using an artificial cast urethane 3D backdrop (like Universal Rocks) as the flooring. I found one that was relatively flat, without deep rock outcroppings. This takes care of the major issues (Axolotl-safe & looks good, with a sandy texture), plus the backdrops come in huge sizes that can be cut to fit most tank floors as one piece. They're flexible so they're easy to insert into a tank and they don't float. However, they're expensive and you can't sink plants or decorations into them. They also don't have as much surface area as gravel to host beneficial bacterial that are necessary for the nitrogen cycle.

Water Temperature During this time, I had become increasingly concerned about the water temperature. Outdoors, it had regularly been over 100 degrees Fahrenheit before the official start of summer. Even though we run an air conditioner, we set our thermostat to 78 degrees to help us keep an affordable electric bill. According to Internet sources, that's way too hot for Axolotls since they prefer a chilly 65 degrees. According to one website, 75 degrees WILL KILL YOUR WATER DRAGON (Axolotl)! Although that may be a bit drama-queenish (since mine had been in the store for half a year and were perfectly okay and seemed fine in my tank), I didn't want to take any chances, especially since I hadn't seen Axolotls in any pet stores ever before (and I'm adverse to buying them online from places that call them "Water Dragons"). I started putting bags of ice and frozen water bottles in the tank and looking at aquarium chillers. The twice-a-day ice treatment only brought the temperature down to 76 degrees and tended to use most of the output of our refrigerator's ice cube maker, so the search for a chiller became more urgent.

axolotl leucestic

Chillers are expensive, and the cheapest (lowest powered) refrigerant-driven chillers cost over $300-- you can buy a more powerful room air conditioner for far cheaper than that! More horsepower costs more and you can spend thousands of dollars on a unit to chill a really big tank. With cooling systems, you want an appropriate match of the cooler's capacity to the target load. If you make a cooler operate at the limits of, or outside its capacity, it will run longer, hotter, and break down sooner. At the other extreme, you're just wasting money on unused capacity and possibly drawing more current for frequent short running cycles. You also want to consider the chiller's pump throughput requirements since a large chiller with big pump will create a lot of water movement in a small tank-- Axolotls don't like that.

Naturally, I wanted to spend the least possible; I was looking at chillers capable of bringing 55 gallons down to approximately 69 degrees from our ambient 78 degrees. The 1/13 HP Aqua Euro chiller was rated for 50 gallons (though some places said 60 gallons), and was at the limit of what I was willing to spend. I figured that the tight capacity/load mismatch could be alleviated by putting less water in the tank or by setting the thermostat higher, so it didn't have to work as hard. During the decision there were times when I regretted buying the little beasts... but I didn't feel that it would be fair to unload the burden of their care on someone else.

axolotl wild

More Tanks I realized another problem: The tank divider kept the fish and amphibians apart, but it wouldn't do that for the water temperature! A few degrees lower were probably okay, but the fish wouldn't like 69 degrees. To fit the space of the 55-gallon tank, we bought two cube-shaped 29-gallon tanks. Not ideal for the growing Axolotls, but sometimes you've got to deal with what you're given.

Conditioning Since we were transferring from an old tank to new ones, the conditioning process was nearly instantaneous for the fish. The amphibian tank took a lot longer, for a variety of reasons. The amphibian tank, with it's Axolotl-safe substrate, only got a handful of the old conditioned gravel placed in the new filter. Their chilled water probably inhibited growth of beneficial bacteria, especially the kind that converts nitrites to nitrates; also, Axolotls eat a lot and poop some huge lincoln logs! They're not particularly clean eaters either-- when munching on Ed's Flymeat Axolotl pellets, there's usually a bunch of particles shooting out the sides of their mouths. Although the Ammonia->Nitrite cycle kicked pretty quickly, the Nitrite->Nitrate part seemed to take forever, necessitating frequent and large water changes. I added sea salt to the conditioned new water to help the critters deal with the Nitrites. Fortunately, the amphibians are pretty hardy creatures and didn't seem to stress out from the frequent water changes. I added a spare hang-on-back filter stuffed with Bio-Media to supplement the canister filter, also stuffed with Bio-Media. By the time the tank had fully cycled, the Axolotls had grown nearly two inches! They'd also learned to live with Ghost Shrimp and an Otocinclus catfish, and learned to not swallow the Peninsula Newts' limbs.


The spare 55-gallon tank didn't stay in storage long; only as long as it took me to identify a large spot where I could move some stuff and set up the tank. Since my chosen aqua-critters weren't particularly showy or active, I thought it would be fun and different to have a more active tank, filled with a bunch of schooling community fish.

von rio tetra

Tetras The first inhabitants were a batch of Von Rio Tetras. They're easy to take care of and aren't fussy about the water. They're mid-tank residents, swim at a leisurely pace, and only mildly shoal together.

gold tetra

The second batch were Gold Tetras, who have very different behaviours. They're mid-tank dwellers too, but shoal fairly tightly and swim very quickly, sometimes splitting off into small subgroups. At feeding time, they're frenzied and dart quickly to and from the surface to eat flakes.

Between the two, the tank is in a constant state of activity, and it can seem too busy and dizzying at times. Because there are so many little fishies, and because they're constantly zipping around, it's not conducive to watching a single fish for interesting behaviour, as is the case with the Axolotls, newts, and Mormyrid fish. I thought the tank needed some other slower-moving points of interest.

orange mexican dwarf crayfish

cambarellus patzcuarensis ...a.k.a. Orange Mexican Dwarf Crayfish, also called "CPO" by some. Crawdads are usually pretty agressive, but these guys are so small that they can't do much harm to other tank dwellers. That doesn't keep them from trying to look scary and intimidating-- if you get close to the tank, they rush towards you with claws extended. They regularly get into brief intimidation matches with each other: Most often, no damage is done, and usually, the smaller one quickly retreats.

orange mexican dwarf crayfish

However, the really stupid ones don't. I noticed that one only had two legs (!) on the same side of his body when I released him into the tank. He was immediately attacked by a resident, and my quick intercession probably saved him from a gruesome fate. He was placed alone in a small tank and although he only had two legs, he was sort of able to get around and eat, at least long enough to molt. He emerged from the molt with a full set of limbs; however, his front claws were awfully tiny. After a few weeks of recuperation, I released him to the community tank. A day later, he was down one claw. He went back to the hospital tank, where he's since molted and regrown the second-chance claw... which is smaller than his other claw. He's going to stay there for a long time since he's clearly too stupid to enter mainstream crawdad society.

crystal red shrimp

Crystal Red Shrimp I'd bought a few Red Cherry Shrimp for the tank, but wasn't very impressed by their dark red appearance in the tank, and their ability to stay hidden from me. I'd seen a tank of Crystal Red Shrimp in a local store and wanted some, but couldn't stomach the price for such a tiny critter. I decided to chance it and ordered some online because of the price, but was concerned about their delivery in 100+ degree temperatures, the warning about their need for good quality water, and their compatibilty with the aggressive crayfish. After a few days of doubt while waiting for shipping confirmation, I attemped to cancel my order but was told that they'd just shipped.

They arrived within a couple days and all my concerns were put to rest. They immediately went to work like tiny grazing cattle, and when approached by a crayfish, would dart away and swim amongst the fish. They're much faster and better swimmers than the crayfish, who lumber around like bulldozers. They're not shy, are highly visible despite their small size, and are constantly searching for food missed by the fish and crayfish. They also put to rest my fears about the tank water quality. (Although it had tested well, I wondered whether it would meet the standards of fussier inhabitants.)

crystal red shrimp


Maintenance is the downside of pet-keeping, and it places demands on your time, your effort and your pocketbook. Critters have to be fed and their habitat has to be kept clean, regardless of whether you feel like it or not. It's a commitment and a responsibility.

Fortunately, these critters don't seem to be too demanding in the feeding department. My Mormyrid tank inhabitants have been fed the same meal of frozen bloodworms for nearly 10 years and they don't seem to tire of it. They clearly appreciate the treat of live blackworms, but never refuse to eat the bloodworms. Similarly, the Axolotls seem to like the blackworms, but continue to gobble up the dried Axolotl pellets with as much gusto. The community tank gets fed fish flakes a couple times a day and the bottom-grazing invertebrates clean up all traces of the algae wafers. Feeding is a fairly easy daily routine to keep, but you do have to maintain a supply of food. This means planning ahead, especially for Axolotl pellets, which you're not likely to find at a local pet store.

Cleaing is a more thorny commitment because it's harder work and because you have some discretion for putting it off. I suspect that "by-the-book" maintenance schedules may be a little overblown based on my experience: I rarely did any maintenance with my Mormyrid tank, and never tested the water. Whenever the water level dropped (from evaporation) so that the filter made annoying sounds (about every month or two), I would top off the tank with untreated tap water and spray the filter floss with the garden hose. Sometimes, I'd vaccum the gravel. In nearly 10 years, I don't recall doing a complete tank cleaning, and none of my fish died. Of course, this was a very lightly populated tank-- 3 medium-sized fish in a 55-gallon tank.

In a more heavily populated tank, regular maintenance is obviously more important. My Axolotl tank is the most heavily populated of my three main tanks. The Axolotls have big meaty bodies that require a lot of food and produce a lot waste. While their urethane substrate makes it easy to keep the tank bottom clean of large turds, they create a lot of small particulate matter while eating, much of which ends up trapped in the filters, but some of which settles everywhere like dust. Therefore, the periodic cleaning routine involves siphoning out about 5 gallons of water, opening up the cannister and hang-on-back filters, washing the filter floss and sponges in it, putting the filters back together and dumping 5 gallons of new, conditioned water (treated with Amquel Plus) back in. This kicks up the "dust" particles that had settled, which hopefully will end up in the newly-cleaned filters. I'm much more careful about using conditioned water with this tank because I want to preserve as many of the nitrogen cycle bacteria as possible. They have a lot of work to do, and the gravel-less tank relies more heavily on external bio-media to provide surface area for them to grow.

The lower "meat-to-water volume" ratio of the other tanks means that their maintenance schedule can be lighter since it takes longer for nitrate levels to build up. Having healthy plants can help out too, since they lock up some of the nitrates (as long as they stay alive and in good health).