Wednesday, October 7, 2015

How to Choose an Axolotl

Recently, Pacific Science Center’s Animal Care team added two new axolotls to our Reptile-Amphibian-Mammal (RAM) Zone. Sticking with our Beatrix Potter theme, their names are “Babbitty” and “Simpkin.” After their quarantine period, Dr. Maas, our veterinarian, gave them the green light to go into the exhibit tank with our big axolotl Flopsy. We will keep them separated with a divider for a few months to let them grow.

While looking them over, Dr. Maas repeatedly commented on how great they looked. While we wish we could take all the credit perhaps we can share some of the glory. We looked at a lot of axolotls before choosing these two. What did we look for?

Although not veterinarians, our Animal Care staff has learned to look for signs of general good health in our own animals. We know when a slight change might be an early warning of health problems to come. Choosing a new animal for its health is an extension of knowing what to look for in our current animals. Of course each species is unique but guidelines for our axolotls make a good strategy for choosing any healthy animal.

We looked for:

• Full, branched gills held out at an alert but relaxed angle. Axolotls breathe through their gills therefore the more expanded, fluffy and branched the gills are, the better! This is the equivalent to a clean nose in a kitten or puppy. Dr. Maas showed us that Babbitty’s pale gills turned red briefly when she went near the air bubbler, and also when she was upset during her exam. The posture and color of axolotl gills can show mood, health, and water quality.

• Strong necks and tails. We want new axo’s with a lot of muscle tone. Because they live underwater, even the healthiest axolotl still will have spindly little legs. So we look for muscular tails and thick, strong necks. We also wanted animals that had enough fat covering that we didn’t see all of their ribs. With any new animal, too thin is a concerning sign. A thin animal might be just undernourished but there could be deeper problems.

• Good skin color and texture. Flopsy, our older axolotl, has begun to lose pigment along her spine. Dr. Maas says the pattern of pigment loss is a healthy one – she is essentially going gray. But in a young axolotl, we wanted a consistent skin tone. If there is a pattern, we should see it everywhere. Skin discolorations can mean fungus or bacterial infection.

Although both of our new axolotls are healthy, they behave differently. Simpkin is an aggressive, ready feeder, who swims over and gulps down any food we offer. Babbitty, less eager to eat, would often wait to eat food until later, cleaning fallen morsels from the tank floor. At first we thought the eating styles could have to do with the way each was fed growing up. Or perhaps Babbitty’s vision is not as keen as Simpkin’s. Now it seems that both are adjusting to taking food from tongs. We will keep an eye on their growth rates to make sure they both continue to flourish and stay as healthy as they are now. Come visit the RAM Zone and watch our new axolotls grow!

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