The popularity of keeping axolotls as pets has been steadily increasing over the last decade or so and although axolotl morphing is very rare, we have noticed more and more people asking for a guide on axolotl morphing recently due to a number of photographs of terrestrial axolotls (morphed axolotls) going viral on social media. Due to so many people reaching out with questions about axolotl morphing as well as the morphing process being so rare for axolotls, we have decided to publish this dedicated article.
Before we go any further we just want to say that it is very rare for an axolotl to morph and it is not a normal process for an axolotl to go through. The majority of axolotls will reach adulthood without going through metamorphosis and will retain their gills and remain as an aquatic animal. In rare situations, axolotls will morph into a terrestrial axolotl that is essentially an axolotl that lives on land but loses some of its aquatic axolotl features.
In addition to this, there have been reports of people buying an “axolotl” that actually turned out to be a larval stage tiger salamander rather than an actual axolotl. This can be an easy mistake to make for a beginner, especially when purchasing your pet from a questionable breeder but it is totally normal for a larval stage tiger salamander to morph into a terrestrial tiger salamander. In this article, we will be focusing on axolotl morphing to try and help as many of our readers as possible who have actual axolotls.
What Is Axolotl Morphing?
Axolotl morphing is the process of an axolotl changing from an aquatic axolotl to a terrestrial axolotl. This process is very rare due to the majority of axolotls not being able to naturally produce the hormone that is required by their thyroid to create thyroxine to trigger the metamorphosis of the axolotl. Due to there being so little evolutionary exposure for terrestrial axolotls, its is very common for them to die during or soon after morphing.
With axolotls being researched by scientists all over the globe due to their natural regenerative capabilities, a number of labs have developed ways to successfully trigger the morphing of axolotls using thyroid hormone or iodine as a part of their research. When done in a controlled environment, the morphed axolotls do tend to have a high survival rate due to the triggering methods being done by professionals with experience.
A number of people who keep axolotls as pets have tried to force their axolotl to morph using similar methods but it does have a very high chance of failing with the axolotl often ending up dead. Due to axolotls being paedomorphic salamanders and not being able to naturally trigger their metamorphosis stage, there are no documented cases of axolotls morphing in the wild.
What Causes An Axolotl To Morph?
It is extremely unlikely that an axolotl will just spontaneously morph and the majority of documented axolotl morphs into terrestrial axolotls have involved either thyroid hormone or iodine in some way. There have been a number of accidental axolotl morphs recorded by people keeping axolotls as pets with iodine accidentally getting into their axolotl’s tank water triggering the morph.
Although unproven, there is a theory that axolotls would have been able to naturally morph thousands of years ago when their habitat overlapped with that of the jumile stink bugs in Mexico. The theory is that the high iodine content of the jumiles is enough to trigger an axolotl morph so if an axolotl ate enough jumiles, they would naturally morph without human intervention.
Due to the habitat of both the axolotl and the jumile shrinking drastically over the last few hundred years or so, this natural morphing process is no longer possible and is just a theory. All documented axolotl morphs to date have had human interaction with the axolotl being in captivity as either a pet or for scientific research.
Do All Axolotls Morph?
Not all axolotls morph and the vast majority of axolotl will remain in their aquatic state throughout their entire life with only a very small number of axolotls ever actually morphing. This is due to axolotls not being able to naturally produce thyroxine that is required to trigger their morph with humans usually having to be involved in some way.
Due to the majority of axolotls remaining in their aquatic stage, their evolutionary path has promoted the strongest aquatic axolotl due to survival of the fittest. This has resulted in the poor health of a huge number of terrestrial axolotls as they don’t naturally morph so the majority of morphed axolotls do die due to having poor gene selection for the terrestrial axolotl stage.
A large number of axolotls also die during the actual morphing process but much of this is due to many axolotls refusing to eat and rarely drink during the morphing process. The lack of calories being taken in by the axolotl and the higher calorie burn during the morphing process is usually difficult to overcome and successfully get through.
Is My Axolotl Morphing?
The easiest way to tell if your axolotl is morphing is to monitor the size of its gills and dorsal fin each day as they tend to rapidly recede during the morphing process. Your axolotl will also develop eye lids and its legs will tend to become more muscular too with its skin texture changing slightly but the changes to the skin are usually in the final stages of the morph.
A large number of people incorrectly think that their axolotl is starting to morph when it is simply lethargic due to the water in its tank being too warm for it. Axolotls are from cold water streams, lakes, and rivers in Mexico but some people who keep axolotls try to keep fish in the aquarium with them and although this is a bad idea from the start due to the fish usually ending up as axolotl food, some people do increase the temperature of the water in the tank to meet the needs of the fish.
Your axolotl water temperature should be 60-64°F/16-18°C to help keep your axolotl active and healthy. Feeding your axolotl a poor diet can also be another reason that it will end up being lethargic and lead people to think that the axolotl is morphing even when it is not.
Axolotl Morphing Signs!
The most obvious axolotl morphing signs are the receding gills and dorsal fin on your axolotl as well as a drastic loss of apatite. If you look closely you will also start to notice the development of eyelids during the morphing process as well as the limbs of your axolotl becoming more muscular too.
There are a number of other less common signs during the axolotl morphing process too and not all axolotls will see a loss of apatite during the morphing process either. Some axolotls will start to slow their movement and remain close to stationary while others will remain fairly active too.
Due to axolotl morphing being such a rare occurrence, there are not many documented cases of it with there currently being no real understanding of the normal behaviour of axolotls when they morph. This is one of the main reasons that it can be difficult to identify when your axolotl is actually morphing and when it is just having an off-day or had damaged its gills rather than them receding.
Can You Force An Axolotl To Morph?
Scientists studying axolotls due to their regenerative abilities have managed to develop a system to successfully force an axolotl to morph that has a high success rate using either thyroid hormone or iodine to get the axolotl to produce thyroxine to trigger its metamorphosis. Although a number of axolotl pet owners have also tried to force their axolotl to morph, they tend to have a high failure rate with many of the pet axolotls dying in the process.
A number of people have accidentally forced their pet axolotl to morph too due to accidentally adding iodine to their axolotl’s water or due to feeding them insects such as jumiles that are naturally high in iodine. Feeding axolotls insects that are high in iodine is one of the more common ways to accidentally force an axolotl to morph too but the feeding does usually need to take place over many weeks with the feeding also being very consistent.
Although the majority of insects used for live feeding axolotls do contain a higher iodine percentage than average, they are still usually too low to cause the axolotl to produce thyroxine to trigger its morph. It usually does take insects that are particularly high in iodine for this to occur and due to it taking a long time for an axolotl to produce thyroxine with a consistent supply of iodine, it usually does not occur.
What Do Axolotls Morph Into?
Axolotls morph from aquatic axolotls into terrestrial axolotl once the morphing process is complete. A number of people incorrectly refer to a morphed axolotl as a “mole salamander” but an axolotl in its aquatic form is also a mole salamander due to the genus of axolotls being Ambystoma that is also known as the mole salamander genus.
There are actually over 30 different types of mole salamander and it is the name of the actual genus that axolotls are a part of rather than specific to axolotls in their post morph state. The correct term for a morphed axolotl is simply a terrestrial axolotl with the pre-morphed axolotl technically being an aquatic axolotl but most commonly just referred to as an axolotl without the aquatic specifier.
Some people also refer to a terrestrial axolotl as a tiger salamander but tiger salamander is a totally different species within the mole salamander genus. We know that juvenile tiger salamanders look like aquatic axolotls and adult tiger salamanders look like terrestrial axolotls but they are a totally different species to each other.
Is It Bad For An Axolotl To Morph?
It is usually bad for an axolotl to morph due to the majority of axolotls not being in ideal conditions for their bodies to undergo such a drastic change in such a short period of time. In addition to this, many axolotls will stop eating entirely and usually only drink very small amounts while morphing making the process even more difficult too.
This is why so many axolotl’s do unfortunately die during the morphing process be it an intentional or accidental morph trigger. We would never recommend that our readers attempt to force their pet axolotl to morph as experienced scientists still have trouble getting all of their axolotls to morph without issue.
On top of this, you will have to provide your terrestrial axolotl with a land-based tank with only a small water area. If you have multiple axolotls in your aquarium then this can result in you needing to buy a whole new set up that may end up being hundreds of even thousands of dollars. Terrestrial axolotls tend to be a total pain to feed too with the majority of post morph terrestrial axolotls only eating live food and needing a lot of encouragement to actually eat the food too.
What Is A Morphed Axolotls Lifespan?
A large number of axolotls that have their metamorphosis triggers will unfortunately die during the morphing process. Those axolotls that do make it through the morphing process and become terrestrial axolotls do often die within months of morphine.
Due to there being such a small amount of data available on terrestrial axolotls, we are not sure if their high death rate is due to them requiring different levels of care once they have morphed. It is very common for a morphed axolotl to become a very picky eater and refuse anything other than live food so this may lead to malnutrition and potentially add to the problems the axolotl is having.
The majority of people who do have a terrestrial axolotl that has successfully gone through the morphing process and lived for over six months do seem to be experienced amphibian owners with a wide range of supplies and a budget large enough to stock plenty of live food for their terrestrial axolotl. Although the morphing process is difficult for any animal with it usually being the most dangerous part of its life, maybe in time, once we have more experience with terrestrial axolotls we will be able to offer them the care they need to live for many years without issue.
That brings our article going over axolotl morphing to an end. We hope that you have found it helpful and that we have been able to explain a number of questions that we commonly see asked from the community. Axolotls can be excellent pets but we would highly recommend that you keep them in their aquatic state rather than try to force your axolotl to morph as it is usually not worth it. If you do want a terrestrial salamander then just purchase a tiger salamander instead of an axolotl.