The axolotl is only native to Lake Xochimilco and Lake Chalco in central Mexico. Unfortunately for the axolotl, Lake Chalco no longer exists as it was drained by humans to avoid periodic flooding, and Lake Xochimilco remains a diminished glimpse of its former self, existing mainly as canals. The water temperature in Xochimilco rarely rises above 20 °C (68 °F), though it may fall to 6 or 7 °C (45 °F) in the winter, and perhaps lower. The wild population has been put under heavy pressure by the growth of Mexico City. Axolotls are also sold as food in Mexican markets and were a staple in the Aztec diet. They are currently listed by CITES as an endangered species and by IUCN as critically endangered in the wild, with a decreasing population.
Axolotls are members of the Ambystoma tigrinum (Tiger salamander) complex, along with all other Mexican species of Ambystoma. Their habitat is like that of most neotenic species—a high altitude body of water surrounded by a risky terrestrial environment. These conditions are thought to favor neoteny. However, a terrestrial population of Mexican Tiger Salamanders occupies and breeds in the axolotl's habitat.
The axolotl is carnivorous, consuming small prey such as worms, insects, and small fish in the wild. Axolotls locate food by smell, and will snap at any potential meal, sucking the food into their stomachs with vacuum force.