Axolotls are notoriously adorable salamanders, known for their smiley faces, feathery external gills, and colorful morphs. It’s easy to see why people go mad for these creatures!
Sure, they’re not exactly the cuddliest of companions. You can’t hold or handle them like a snake or a lizard for example. But, axolotls are quite easy to take care of, make up for their drawbacks in so many ways, and are certainly an interesting species to own as a pet.
While axies might be adorable and low-maintenance, people often wonder “Are axolotls smart?”. Whether you own an axolotl already, are looking to buy one, or even if you’re just curious about these funky looking salamanders, you’ve probably come here wondering how intelligent axolotls actually are.
Luckily for you, we’ve got you covered! Here is everything you need to know about whether axolotls are smart or not!
Table of Contents
- Are Axolotls Smart?
- How Do Axolotls Express Their Intelligence?
- Pet Axolotl Intelligence Vs. Wild Axolotl Intelligence
- So…Are Axolotls Smart?
Are Axolotls Smart?
To put it simply: yes, axolotls are pretty smart – just not in the way you might expect. Axolotls don’t manifest their intelligence in the same way that more familiar pets do, such as dogs or cats for example.
Generally speaking, we use the term smart interchangeably with the term intelligent. Broadly speaking, intelligence is the ability to acquire and apply knowledge and skills. So, we can use this definition as a measure of an axolotl’s intelligence.
How Do Axolotls Express Their Intelligence?
To be quite frank, humans will never fully understand the intelligence levels of any animal. At best, we can make educated assumptions about how smart axolotls might be.
The life of an axolotl is relatively simple compared to many animals, and mammals in particular. Axolotls don’t have complex social structures and interactions. There doesn’t appear to be a hierarchy (think of the pride male in a lion pride or the alpha wolf in packs).
They don’t partake in collective efforts or the division of labor (think of colonies of bees or ants for example).
Neither do they build complex structures to shelter themselves (no hives, nests, dams or burrows, etc.)? Finally, they don’t raise their young but simply lay eggs and let nature do the rest.
Instead, axolotls live rather simple, solitary lives at the bottom of lakes and canals.
Axolotls have evolved to only need enough intelligence to know their surroundings, know what their food looks like, identify dangers and recognize a potential mating partner.
Knowing Their Surroundings
One of the reasons why people will say that axolotls are smart is because they are generally clever when it comes to knowing their surroundings.
Axolotls need time to get to know their aquariums, but once they do, they’ll know their favorite places such as hides, and will tend to return to those places repeatedly.
As a result of their apparent knowledge of their surroundings, it’s safe to assume that axolotls seem to have a type of memory.
It’s also safe to assume that their memory lasts far longer than other aquatic creatures such as goldfish, which can lead people to assume that axolotls are pretty smart considering what they’ve got to work with.
Identifying Food Sources
Apart from knowing their surroundings, another indicator of an axolotl’s intelligence comes from their relationship with food.
Their diet in the wild consists of a range of worms, crustaceans, insects, and small fish. This diet can easily be mimicked in captivity, and owners tend to also feed them pellets or little pieces of meat for example.
Axolotls appear to know the difference between different these types of food (and even have their favorite snacks), know when they are about to be fed (this only applies to pet axolotls of course) and have the ability to find food quickly.
Whether axolotls are smart enough to know that they could potentially become some other creature’s food is another question…
Throughout the ages, axolotls were at the top of the food chain in their natural habitat in the freshwaters of the Valley of Mexico.
That was the case until humans came along and started fishing them, and then later introduced several invasive species such as carp or tilapia.
For tilapia and carp, axolotl eggs and young axolotl are excellent sources of protein. Tilapia are also known to prey on adult axolotls and have unfortunately contributed to the decline in wild axolotl numbers.
Unfortunately for axolotls, as these predators were not present in their habitat during most of their evolution, they are not great at identifying or evading them.
Whilst their flight response – which is more of an instinct or a reflex than a sign of intelligence – can work to avoid being captured, it doesn’t do much to prevent their eggs from being eaten. This main defense mechanism draws on their quick speed and sense of awareness. They will generally dart out of the way at lightning speed when a threat comes to their immediate vicinity.
The same goes for axolotls in tanks. For pets and those in captivity, axolotls will still be alert to danger. They’ll often dart into the darkness if they have been startled by a tank mate or even their keeper.
Unfortunately, as far as defense mechanisms go, this is about as defensive as an axolotl gets. This isn’t a fault of their intelligence, however – their anatomies simply don’t allow for a smart defense mechanism other than swimming away really fast or the ability to regrow limbs.
Moreover, whilst their intelligence was sufficient for them to survive in a habitat devoid of predators during much of their evolution, the new threats recently introduced into their environment are putting their IQ to the test.
And as the evidence suggests, it’s not yet sufficient to outwit these new predators.
If you own an axolotl, you probably know that it’s not wise to fill the tank with other inhabitants. This is because axolotls can be territorial and feel threatened when other creatures encroach into what they consider to be “their space”.
It’s quite common for an axolotl to become defensive of its territory if a new axolotl is introduced to the tank, which is a sign that they’re aware of new inhabitants.
In some cases, if the new axolotl is smaller or younger than the other, the older axolotl can even present cannibalistic behavior. This is especially true for axolotls in small tanks.
Finding A Partner & Mating
Every animal in the world has their own method of courting and reproduction.
Finding A Mating Partner
Prior to mating, an animal must be at least smart enough to recognize another individual of the same species. Without this ability, animals in general, and axolotls, in particular, would not be able to reproduce – full stop.
So, at a very minimum, it could be said that axolotls are intelligent or smart enough to recognize an individual of the same species and opposite sex.
Whether you consider the courting methods of an axolotl to be worthy of calling them smart is up to you. While their methods usually work, one might say that this is purely nature doing its thing.
The male will lay small packets of sperm on the floor of the tank (known as spermatophores) before dancing and moving around the pocket of sperm. It’s less of a celebratory dance and more of a “Hey, lady, look over here!” dance.
During this dance, he will nudge the female’s cloaca (part of her reproductive organs) to guide her toward his sperm.
Both will do a little courtship dance of nudging and tail swishing, and this courtship ritual can take several hours to days. Once successful, the female will start to lay eggs rather quickly. The sperm will then fertilize the eggs, and the rest is history.
Pet Axolotl Intelligence Vs. Wild Axolotl Intelligence
When it comes to gauging the intelligence of an axolotl, you’ve got to remember that the axolotls we keep as pets and the axolotls that live in the wild are evolving along different trajectories.
This is mainly due to the fact that they live in very different environments and therefore natural selection is influencing their evolution in different ways…
Therefore, it wouldn’t be too far-fetched to imagine that pet axolotls and wild axolotls may have different levels of intelligence.
What Is Natural Selection?
Natural selection is the evolutionary mechanism theorized by British naturalist Charles Darwin in his masterpiece On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, published in England on November 24, 1859.
Through this mechanism populations of living organisms adapt and change.
Individuals in a population are naturally variable, i.e. their phenotypes are different from one another. The phenotype is the set of observable characteristics of an individual resulting from the interaction of its genotype (its genetic constitution) with its environment.
As a result, no two individuals are 100% identical. This variation means that some individuals have characteristics, skills, abilities, etc. which are better suited to their environment than others. These individuals are more likely to survive and pass on their genes to the next generation. This phenomenon is also known as “survival of the fittest”.
This phenotype or set of observable characteristics can encompass physical attributes (such as morphology, size, strength, speed, color or in the specific case of the axolotl: the ability to regenerate limbs for example), but also mental attributes such as intelligence.
Therefore, it could be said that an axolotl’s intelligence is a function of its environment through the filter of natural selection.
Pet Axolotls (Axolotls Bred In Captivity)
The axolotls that we keep as pets have predominantly been bred in captivity.
They were born and raised in tanks. These artificial habitats are designed to offer optimal living conditions (water parameters, temperature, lighting, etc.). Moreover, the axolotls are shielded from predators and fed regularly by their keepers.
If they are sick, pet axolotls tend to be taken to the vet who will treat them for their ailments.
Under these conditions, the axolotls aren’t really challenged. It can be said that their environment is optimal for survival.
In short: they have it E-A-S-Y!
Under these conditions, natural selection is not applying the same pressure to pet axolotl populations as it would on wild axolotl populations. As a result, even the physically weaker, and/or less intelligent animals will survive.
Wild Axolotls (Feral Axolotls)
On the other hand, wild axolotls have to survive in a natural habitat that’s far more challenging.
Their environment is full of dangers, such as the threat of being injured or eaten by a predator.
They also have to compete with other axolotls for companions to mate with – and indeed other species – for shelter and food.
Their bodies have to be able to resist sub-optimal water parameters, such as drops or increases in water temperature, or the presence of chemicals in the water at levels susceptible to negatively impacting their health.
And if that wasn’t bad enough, humans have also been making their lives more difficult by encroaching on their habitat, polluting it, and overfishing them.
So compared to their pet cousins, wild axolotls have it tough. Survival is far from guaranteed and wild axolotls must rely on a good constitution and an adequate level of intelligence to make it to adulthood, mate, and ultimately pass on their genetic material.
The weaker individuals tend to die off before they reach adulthood. As a result, the genes which confer them the characteristics that make them weak are progressively removed from the gene pool. This is natural selection at work.
Knowing the above, one could make the assumption that, over time, the average intelligence level of pet axolotl populations will drop compared with axolotls living in their natural habitat.
So…Are Axolotls Smart?
To summarize, axolotls are fairly smart.
If you associate intelligence with understanding their surroundings, knowing what food they can or cannot eat, identifying potential dangers and threats and recognizing potential mating partners and performing mating rituals, then YES, axolotls have a certain level of intelligence.
Moreover, the assumption can be made that pet axolotls are becoming somewhat less intelligent than their wild counterparts.