Reef Clean Up Crew

Every saltwater aquarium will, at some point, develop some degree of nuisance algae and cyanobacteria. And this is where a reef clean up crew will come in really handy.

These reef janitors — algae grazing snails and hermit crabs — are our allies when it comes to keeping our tanks algae free. In the case of one more species, Lysmata amboinensis, the aptly named Cleaner Shrimp also helps us out by consuming uneaten food and other debris, and will even clean small parasites off of the fish in the tank!

In addition to the 24/7, full-time cleaning service they provide, a small reef clean up crew population also adds interest and bio-diversity to an aquarium.

Here is a list of various invertebrates you might consider adding to your reef clean up crew, with the exception of one obnoxious species, as you’ll read about below:

Red-Leg Scarlet Hermit Crab

I am particularly fond of this species.

I remember the day when I added a Red-Leg Hermit Crab to my seahorse tank that had green tuft algae growing on the rocks. Tuft algae is difficult to deal with. The live rock needs to be removed one by one and given a thorough brushing. And this algae was starting to plague this tank.

Worse, I started to notice stray strands of filamentous hair algae also beginning to sprout up. The seahorse is a messy eater, often letting several bits of mysis fall to the sandbed, uneaten. No doubt this was acting as a nutrient for the algae.

red leg hermit crab

Red Leg Hermit Crab

I knew I had to act fast.

After careful acclimation, I added a lone Red-Leg Hermit Crab to the tank. And within an hour it was out and about, grazing on the green algae, leaving little areas of white patches on the rock where it had been eating.

In a week it had almost cleared the seahorse tank entirely of algae, including the filamentous algae which I dread the most. Best of all, it had also polished off some small patches of cyanobacteria or red-slime algae that was developing.

Because of its small size, The Red-Leg Hermit Crab is very peaceful and won’t bother any of your other tank inhabitants. It is definitely one reef clean up crew member I can wholeheartedly recommend.

Blue-Leg Hermit Crab — Beware!

My first experience with this particular species was, shall we say, not a good one.

Before I got into the marine aquarium hobby, I used to accompany my former boss on frequent trips to various fish stores around town to add livestock to the office aquarium. That tank turned out to be a disaster, as you can read about here.

To combat the hair algae that was seriously getting out of hand, one of the fish store owners recommended a couple of Blue-Leg Hermit Crabs.

True, they will do their job as part of the reef clean up crew and eat hair algae and even cyanobacteria.

But behind those vibrant neon-blue markings, they have a dark side..

The Blue-Leg Hermit is one of the most ornery specimens I have come across. Within an hour of entering the aquarium, we stared in disbelief as one of the blue hermits tried to pry an Astraea snail off the glass to get at its shell!

What was surprising was the amount of force it could muster in trying to twist the snail off. The hapless mollusk was holding on for dear life. If the snail was not on the glass and on a rock instead, the Blue-Leg Hermit would definitely have had its way — a snail dinner and a new shell as its prize!

So if you have added a Blue-Leg Hermit Crab recently and are wondering where all your snails have gone, you now know the reason why.

Couple their taste for snails with a habit of knocking over corals and live rock with their brute strength and you have a species that I would definitely NOT recommend for your reef clean up crew.

Astraea and Turbo Snails

These snails do a good, but not remarkable, job at keeping your aquarium algae free.

They won’t do much about hair algae but they will graze on encrusting and tuft algae. But most of the time, you’ll find them on the glass where they’ll be happily munching away at the tough green algae that you haven’t gotten around to scraping off yet.

Snails are an interesting addition to your reef clean up crew, but I would add them more for the sake of biodiversity than anything else. Most of these snails live for years, given the right tank conditions, and I’ve had them multiply in my tank by the dozens — tiny replicas of the adults that soon grow to full size.

I would add one snail for every 10 gallons, with one or two in the refugium, to ensure maximum efficiency at algae cleanup. But make sure you have a snail guard on your bulkheads leading to your sump. You do not want a snail venturing down the return pipe creating a blockage.

Acclimation should be slow and gradual, preferably over an hour. Quarantining snails is not necessary as they are not known carriers of fish diseases.

Cleaner Shrimp (Lysmata amboinensis)

Cleaner Shrimp have wonderful personalities and are an interesting and lively addition to any tank. Not shy at all, they remain out in the open, foraging for uneaten food and other scraps. Having Lysmata amboinensis in your reef clean up crew ensures that every particle of food you put into your tank will not go unnoticed. Or uneaten.

cleaner shrimp

Cleaner Shrimp

In the wild, Cleaner Shrimp perform the role of removing parasites and dead skin off of fish, setting up ‘grooming stations’ on the reef. The white antennae and white bands on the body of Lysmata amboinensis serve as a signal to fish of the service they provide.

A small drawback to having Cleaner Shrimp is that they do like to steal food from coral polyps. My Cleaner Shrimp steal food from my Sun Corals all the time, especially when I feed mysis. Their very nature, which makes them excellent reef clean up crew, also makes them a bit of nuisance in this regard.

To circumvent their greediness, soak some pellets in water and feed them to the shrimp first before feeding your corals — three or four pellets per shrimp usually does the trick! They’ll be too full to bother the corals for awhile after that.

Like all shrimp, they need very gradual acclimation before they can be placed into the main tank — about one and half hours is my general rule. Quarantining is not necessary as shrimp do not carry diseases that could affect fish.

A very important thing to note about Cleaner Shrimp — they can sometimes get caught in the impellers of powerheads. With their long antennae and almost hyperactive nature, this is almost an inevitability. If you use powerheads that have an open design like the Tunzes or Hydors, improvise some sort of shrimp-guard with plastic mesh and cable-tie to help prevent shrimp from getting sucked in.


Read More About:

Aquarium Livestock

Algae Control

Diatomaceous Algae Taking Over Your Saltwater Aquarium?



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