The BEST Clean Up Crew Critters – Snails, Crabs, Shrimp and More

Of all of the reef tank inhabitants I’ve had, I think I’ve enjoyed my clean up crew the most. It may seem odd since they’re not the intended focus but the hired guns to help with maintenance but they add a lot of diversity and activity to the tank and are quite entertaining. I especially get a kick out of my emerald crab who scurries out from under a rock when I walk by the tank. He raises his claws and stares at me with a solid “COME AT ME BRO” stance.

Whether you admire them or not, the clean up crew is essential and not an optional addition if you want to maintain a healthy and stable reef tank. These little guys are work horses and they really make your job much easier.

Clean up crew critter categories:

  • Snails

  • Crabs

  • Shrimp

  • Worms

  • Micro-organisms

  • Fish

Snails

Snails tend to be primarily herbivores but some are meat eaters. Herbivores are great for dealing with the various algae issues while the meat eating variety help with left over food.

Nassarius

  • Medium Size
  • Sand-sifter
  • meat lovers
  • Voracious eaters
  • can potentially be detrimental to the population of the micro-organisms in your sand if not well fed

(Pacific) Nerite

  • Medium Size
  • Diatom and film algae grazers

Cerith

  • Medium Size
  • Detritus, cyanobacteria, diatom and film algae grazers

Banded Trochus

  • Medium Size
  • Diatom, film algae, and larger algae grazer
  • Reproduce in tank

Turban

  • Medium Size
  • Diatom, film algae, and cyanobacteria eaters

Dwarf Cerith

  • Tiny Size
  • Diatom, film algae, cyanobacteria, and detritus eaters

Nassarius Vibex

  • Tiny Size
  • Carnivorous only

Mexican Turbo

  • Large Size
  • Voracious Algae Mower

Zebra Turbo

  • Massive Size
  • Voracious Algae Mower

Fighting Conch

  • Massive Size
  • Voracious Algae Mower

Planaxis

  • Tiny Size
  • Micro algae herbivore

Crabs

Crabs are omnivores helping deal with both algae and detritus. Some feel any crab is a danger since it is a meat eater and may harm some of your other clean up crew members so it’s worth bearing this in mind. That said, meat eaters will be necessary for dealing with excess meaty foods left over in your tank before they break down into algae food. Snails can handle both herbivore and carnivore duties so crabs aren’t necessary to risk having. That said, crabs tend to have more personality than snails and are an entertaining addition if they don’t cause too much ruckus.

Scarlet/Red Leg Hermit

  • Popular hardy and relatively reef safe

Blue Leg Hermit

  • A safer hermit but may slay a snail or two

Dwarf Zebra/Left-Handed Hermit

  • A smaller and safer hermit

Sally Lightfoot

  • Voracious scavenger

Emerald

  • Known for eating bubble algae as well as other types of algae 

Shrimp

Shrimp are beautiful members of a clean up crew. They are similar to crabs in their role but are a bit less bossy. Cleaner shrimp are great for removing pests from your fish to help keep them healthy and the popular Peppermint Shrimp is well known for its’ effectiveness in eating the aiptasia and mojano pest anemones.

Scarlet Cleaner Shrimp

  • Scavenger
  • Pick parasites off fish

Coral Banded Shrimp

  • Scavenger
  • Can exhibit aggressive behavior toward fish

Peppermint Shrimp

  • Scavenger
  • Aiptasia eater

Micro-organisms

A healthy reef aquarium should have a plethora of micro-organisms helping with the job of breaking down fish waste and uneaten food. I won’t get into bacteria but I will cover the larger micro-organisms that you can supplement into your tank. The bonus for these little guys is that they are also a great source of live food for your fish and corals.

Phytoplankton

  • Dosing Phytoplankton will help absorb ammonia, nitrites, nitrates, phosphates, silica, etc. Additionally, it is a great food for your pods, rotifers, corals, and more.

Tiger & Tisbe Pods

  • Detritus eater

Rotifers

  • Detritus eater

Worms

Whether you like it or not, you’ll most likely end up with worms of some kind in your aquarium. They hitchhike in on live rock, corals, and other things you place in your aquarium that have come into contact with them. Generally people don’t like them and I’m in that camp, but that doesn’t mean they’re bad. They’re just rather ugly in my opinion.

Bristle Worms

  • Detritus Scavenger

Hair Worms

  • Filter-feeding detritus eater

Spaghetti Worms

  • Tentacle-feeding detritus eater

Peanut Worms

  • Proboscis-feeding detritus eater

Fish

Fish don’t just have to be for entertainment value and beauty alone. Some fish are great at helping control issues in your aquarium. 

Lawnmower Blenny

The name says it all. This little guy eats algae and a lot of it. If you have a lot of algae in your aquarium this guy will get down right chubby. They’re also full of personality and very entertaining. Be sure to supplement the blenny’s diet once the algae in your tank has been knocked way back.

Orchid Dottyback

If you’re not a fan of the previously mentioned Bristle worm and have several in your tank, this little guy may make you happy by munching those worms for lunch.

Six Line Wrasse

The Site Line Wrasse is another Bristle worm eater. It will also feed on other small pests such as pyramid snails and small crustaceans. They can be aggressive with smaller fish.

Copperband Butterfly

If you have a very large aquarium (over 150 gallons), don’t have any other butterfly fish or aggressive fish then the Copperband Butterfly may be a good addition for controlling aiptasia. Also, they are known to nip at feather dusters and anemones so do your research before making a decision to purchase this beautiful fish.

Poor Clean Up Crew Choices

In general, the suggestions listed above are fairly safe but some, like crabs, come with caution. The following were omitted for various reasons but you may find you want to give them a shot depending on your specific situation.

Starfish

While described as good sand sifters, they are feeding on the beneficial bacteria and other micro-organisms in your sand

Sea Urchins

Poor for reef tanks as they will bulldoze through rocks and can much on the wrong things

Lettuce Nudibranch

Hair algae eater but recommended only for advanced reefers

Berghia Nudibranch

A very slow aiptasia eater but once aiptasia is gone they will die out

Bumblebee Snail

Prey on other snails and worms

Margarita Snail

A cold-water snail that will slowly die in the warm waters of our reef tanks

Fancy Nassarius

Predatory snail that will feed on other snails

In Conclusion

A good clean up crew is a must for a healthy aquarium and they make your job infinitely easier. Hopefully this list helps you choose the best crew for your needs. Start slow and build up your crew as necessary. You don’t want to overload your tank and then have your crew starve out.

Do your research. Every tank will have different needs. You also will want to ensure compatibility of clean up crew, fish, and corals. Not only does a clean up crew help you with your regular maintenance but they’re often as entertaining as anything else in your tank. Good luck and happy reefing!

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