Childhood love of axolotls leads Fargo man to breed endangered ‘water dragons’ – InForum

FARGO — When Ray Erickson was in kindergarten, he found a book on a strange breed of Mexican salamanders in a public library. Hungrily, he studied the book for years, and even to this day he’ll flip through it for the memories of where his love for axolotls began.

“It was just that they were weird. I’ve always been biology-minded, growing up on a farm, I was always running around turning over logs, finding all kinds of creepy crawlies,” Erickson said.

The axolotl — pronounced ax-uh-la-tull — is sometimes known as the Mexican walking fish, water dog or even water dragon. They’re a breed of water-bound salamanders that are nearly extinct. The smooth-skinned, flowery-gilled creatures also closely resemble dragons in the 2010 computer-animated film “How to Train Your Dragon.”

Erickson has raised floppy-eared rabbits, giant frogs, hedgehogs, rodents, classic rats, fancy mice and exotic reptiles. But axolotls are special to him — even his license plate says axolotl.

“They’re just my favorite. I like all animals, but they’re just kind of my thing. After that movie came out, they became a pretty big fad. Most recently, I’m not a gamer, but there are some video games that have characterized the axolotl,” said Erickson, now 40 years old.

A pair of large axolotls owned by Ray Erickson of Fargo.

David Samson / The Forum

Although nearly extinct, axolotls are being raised in homes around the world, he said.
Erickson pointed to what he called a black dragon, a father of hundreds of baby axolotls, and then to the mother, who he’s had since 2017. Outside of changing water on a daily basis, they don’t require a lot of maintenance, he said.

Axolotls can live longer than 15 years, and they’re paedomorphic, meaning they retain their larval traits their entire lives, changing only if introduced to iodine, which artificially forces metamorphosis into a land-roaming creature.

In the wild, they’re vulnerable to all kinds of predators, and while they have regenerative capabilities, they prefer to hunker down in the mud, snacking on passersby like small fish and anything they can suck into their mouths.

A bearded man holds a fish bowl with a round, brown amphibian inside.

Ray Erickson of Fargo holds one of his axolotls.

David Samson / The Forum

Formerly a certified nurse and massage therapist, Erickson has devoted much of his time recently to feeding the babies. Carrying water back and forth and separating the axolotls into their own habitats has also given him a regimen of physical therapy after he suffered injuries from a car crash in January.

Always hungry, new axolotls eat only living food like tiny shrimp. As they grow, Erickson gradually changes their diet to worms and commercial food.

Armed with powerful suction instincts but no teeth, axolotls can be cannibalistic while young, so he has to separate the baby “dragons” into separated bowls. Each bowl is filled with tap water that has been dechlorinated and aged.

A dark, light pink, and speckled axolotl are collected in a clear, rectangular dish of water.

A trio of axolotls owned by Ray Erickson of Fargo.

David Samson / The Forum

“Now, the babies have gotten so accustomed to feeding me that they sit and watch me, like little puppy dogs,” said Erickson, who peered over their water bowl. The three baby axolotls turned their faces up toward him.

In the United States, some axolotls have been genetically modified with a green fluorescent protein that can make them glow under an ultraviolet light, a process that is illegal in the United Kingdom, he said.

When parents or children ask him for an axolotl that glows, he tells them that the fluorescent protein that is passed on through their genetic makeup isn’t good for the creatures.

The Fargo area has native tiger salamanders, which mature and evolve into land crawlers, losing their gills and amphibious tails. The water dragons prefer cooler temperatures and could survive naturally in the fierce North Dakota winters, Erickson said.

While he has no intention of releasing his axolotls into the Red River, he is trying to sell recently hatched babies. His copper-colored mother axolotl recently laid about 240 eggs, most of which are maturing now. He has nearly 150 left.

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