Why are Axolotls Illegal to Own in Some States and Provinces?
Adam - June 2nd, 2021
Original photograph by @brendansilkmedia. Additional credit to @_kriztin
As many have noticed, axolotls are illegal to own as pets in some US states and Canadian provinces, as well as other parts of the world. In the US, axolotls are illegal to own in California, Maine, New Jersey, Virginia, and D.C., while a permit is required in New Mexico and Hawaii. In Canada, it is illegal to own axolotls in New Brunswick, British Columbia, Prince Edward Island, while a permit is required in Nova Scotia. In Manitoba, axolotls are illegal in Winnipeg, but legal in the rest of the province. While this can be frustrating to those who live in locations where these bans are implemented, it is important to remember that these rules are in place for valid reasons.
The Reason Behind the Ban
Some may assume that these bans are a result of the wild axolotls being critically endangered, however this is not the case. While wild axolotl populations are in steep decline and will likely face extinction soon, the axolotls kept as pets have been fully bred for generations in captivity and are descendants of a number of small colonies spanning a few different countries.
Pet axolotls have been bred in captivity for decades, to the point where they are no longer the same as axolotls found in the wild, both genetically and behaviorally. Captive axolotls have been crossbred with tiger salamanders, have had their DNA tweaked (the GFP gene is one example), and have been bred for many generations in the absence of natural selective forces, thus making them almost like an entirely different species. This is one important reason why releasing pet axolotls into Lake Xochimilco (their native habitat) would not help prevent wild axolotls from going extinct.
The reason that many governments outlaw the ownership of axolotls comes down to the large environmental threat they pose if they ever were to be released into the wild. For example, this is the case in California where the potential release of axolotls could cause severe environmental damage. If released into the wild, axolotls have the potential to easily outcompete already struggling native salamander species, such as the California tiger salamander (Ambystoma californiense) and the Eastern tiger salamander (Ambystoma tigrinum).
In addition to axolotls, there have already been countless instances of former pets being released and becoming established in local ecosystems, causing unforeseen harm. Look no further than Florida, where a new law was passed earlier this year to ban the ownership of several reptile species that were deemed to be of high risk to the local ecosystems. This ban did not target obscure animals, but was instead aimed at reptiles commonly kept as pets, such as tegus, green iguanas, and various species of pythons. For several years, the ecosystems of Florida have been invaded by many released pets that have outcompeted local animals to the point that some species face extinction.
Another example of escaped pets destroying the environment can be seen all across the United States. Common goldfish are one of the most commonly sold fish in the aquatic hobby. Whether they are sold as pets or feeders, these fish have devastating effects on ecosystems when released into lakes or ponds. While most people are under the impression that these are small, low maintenance fish, this is not the case.
Fully grown goldfish will reach a length of 10-12 inches (25-30 centimeters) and live to be 15-20 years old. These large carp are hardy generalists that can survive in a variety of different environments across the globe, which allows them to easily outcompete native fish. When released by pet owners, goldfish in wild waterways often outcompete local fish species driving them to extinction.
A couple of common goldfish were released into this pond, and now their population continues to multiply as they take over this small pond in Worcester, Massachusetts
Invasive Plants and Hitchhikers
Releasing animals is not the only way that pet owners may introduce invasive species into the environment. Discarded aquatic plants can also have huge impacts on local ecosystems. Earlier this year, headlines were full of reasons to properly dispose of aquatic plants. Across the United States and Canada, there were reports of zebra mussels, an invasive species that has already invaded several waterways across the globe, hitching a ride on marimo balls. While these hitchhikers were easy to spot, aquatic plants can also harbor less noticeable hitchhikers, such as diseases and parasites. In some cases, the discarded plants themselves may even pose a threat as invasive species.
Invasive zebra mussels have been found on marimo balls across US and Canada and could spread to other ecosystems with careless disposal. Photograph courtesy of United States Geological Survey.
If you have ever purchased aquatic plants, then there is a chance that you may have had a run in with duckweed. This small floating plant quickly propagates itself and can cover the surface of your tank quickly. Duckweed, along with several other plants kept in the aquatic hobby, have the potential to destroy ecosystems if not disposed of properly. Whenever you are disposing of aquatic plants, be sure to avoid flushing them down the toilet or disposing of them in or around waterways. Instead, simply throw them in the garbage, or better yet find another hobbyist who may want your trimmings (r/aquaswap on Reddit is a great way to do this).
Water hyacinth, another invasive plant species, easily overpopulates and outcompetes native plant species and causes massive damage to natural ecosystems. Photograph courtesy of Hillebrand Steve USFWS.
It is unfortunate that not everyone is able to own axolotls. However, the reason why most governments ban the ownership of axolotls is in the best interest of local ecosystems. For centuries, humans have been devastating ecosystems and driving animals to extinction. Taking cautionary steps, like limiting where axolotls can be kept, helps to slow down and prevent our collective damage to the world around us. After centuries of destruction of natural habitats, the least we can do is obey these laws and do what we can to ensure captive animals and plants are not released into the wild.