A is for Axolotl

Nearly three years, ago my chap took me home with him for the first time, to feed me a superb lamb curry and introduce me to his unusual pets: three axolotls, in sizes large, medium, and small. Pink gilled and translucent, the ‘little darlings’ as they are affectionately called, were in fact quite endearing as they grinned through the glass at us watching TV.

Though most people root around in their senior school biology memory for what an axolotl is, I had first encountered these curious relations of salamanders, typically for me, in a novel: After You’d Gone, by Maggie O’Farrell. Alice, the central character, encounters a solitary axolotl in her partner John’s bathroom on her first visit to his house.

John, what’s that thing?’

‘What thing?’

‘That thing in the tank upstairs.’

‘Oh,’ he laughs, ‘it’s an axolotl.’

‘A what?’

‘An axolotl. They originate from South America. One of my cousins breeds them. It’s amazing, isn’t it?’

‘But is it a reptile or an amphibian or what?’

‘They’re the larval form of salamanders. If I let him get used to being out of water, he’d become a salamander. They’re the only larval form in existence that can breed.’

‘So he’s stuck in constant adolescence?’ She shudders. ‘What a horrific thought. That’s so cruel. You should let him grow up into a fully fledged salamander and put him out of his misery.’

As an impressionable teenager, Alice and John’s romance seemed enviable: instant, quirkily sexy, and with an idealised feeling of adultness – there were, of course, objections to the match, intense conversations, postcards read with subterfuge, and shagging in front of a vast mirror. For someone who couldn’t wait to grow up, John and Alice were the model. Little did I know that when I longed for O’Farrell’s couple, I would actually end up with a guy who shared at least one thing in common with John: an identical pet.

The little darlings are wonderfully easy to care for. Every two days, you dissolve a portion of bloodworms – frozen, courtesy of Wholesale Tropicals on Bethnal Green Road – in warm water and pour it in. Every fortnight, you clean out the tank with piece of tubing. Keep the water fresh, and wash any rocks before you put them in, and by and large, the little ones do fine.  Except, we started an experiment last year in reducing their feed. As we were going away a good deal, my chap and I decided to try them on a binge-and-starve regime, so they wouldn’t get used to regular meals. But when one axolotl started eating the leg of another one last month, it suggested that we were being a little too forgetful. And then, about a week ago as I was sitting in the living room, my chap gave a cry and called to me. “It’s fallen off now.” And yes, I rushed in to witness the leg that had been hanging by a slim membrane slowly sinking to the floor.

The legless 'lotl.

With our axolotl left with only a small piece of cartilege in place of a limb (and an amusing inability to actually move about the tank!) now was the time to act. So today I moved it into its own little tank by means of a pint glass. But the best thing about axolotls? They’re regenerative. Which means that we can watch as its leg grows back…

Moving the little darling in a pint glass.

A new home and a healthy portion of bloodworms.


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