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

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

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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 workhorses and they really make your job much easier.

Clean-Up Crew Categories

Best Snails For A Reef Tank Clean-Up Crew

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 leftover food.

Nassarius Snail

  • 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
Image Credit: Live Aquaria

Nerite Snail

  • Medium Size
  • Diatom Eater
  • Film Algae Eater
Image Credit: Live Aquaria

Cerith Snail

  • Medium Size
  • Detritus Eater
  • Cyanobacteria Eater
  • Diatom Eater
  • Film Algae Eater
Image Credit: Live Aquaria

Banded Trochus Snail

  • Medium Size
  • Larger Algae Grazer
  • Diatom Eater
  • Film Algae Eater
Image Credit: Live Aquaria

Turban Snail

  • Medium Size
  • Cyanobacteria Eater
  • Diatom Eater
  • Film Algae Eater
Image Credit: Live Aquaria

Dwarf Cerith Snail

  • Tiny Size
  • Cyanobacteria Eater
  • Diatom Eater
  • Film Algae Eater
  • Detritus Eater
Image Credit: Live Aquaria

Nassarius Vibex Snail

  • Tiny Size
  • Carnivorous Only
Image Credit: Aqua Snack

Mexican Turbo Snail

  • Large Size
  • Voracious Algae Mower
Image Credit: Live Aquaria

Zebra Turbo Snail

  • Massive Size
  • Voracious Algae Mower
Image Credit: Live Aquaria

Fighting Conch

  • Massive Size
  • Voracious Algae Mower
Image Credit: Live Aquaria

Dwarf Planaxis Snail

  • Tiny Size
  • Micro Algae Herbivore
Image Credit: ReefCleaners.org
 

Best Crabs For A Reef Tank Clean-Up Crew

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 Crab

  • Hardy
  • Herbivore
  • Reef-Safe
Image Credit: Live Aquaria

Blue Leg Hermit Crab

  • Eats green hair algae
  • Eats cyanobacteria
  • May eat a snail if not adequately feed otherwise
  • Reef-Safe
Image Credit: ReefCleaners.org

Dwarf Zebra/ Left-Handed Hermit Crab

  • Small Size
  • Reef-Safe
Image Credit: Live Aquaria

Sally Lightfoot Crab

  • Voracious Scavenger
  • Algae Eater
  • Reef-Safe
Image Credit: Live Aquaria

Emerald Crab

  • Known for eating bubble algae
  • Also fond of other algaes
  • Excellent Scavenger
  • Omnivore
  • Reef-Safe
Image Credit: Live Aquaria
 

Best Shrimp For A Reef Tank Clean-Up Crew

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

  • Carnivore
  • Literally cleans parasites and dead matter from fish
  • Reef-Safe
Image Credit: Live Aquaria

Peppermint Shrimp

  • Carnivore
  • Scavenger
  • Known for eating aiptasia although some will not.
  • Reef-Safe

Image Credit: Live Aquaria

Coral Banded Shrimp

  • Bristle Worm Eater
  • Can be aggressive toward smaller shrimp
  • Carnivore
  • Reef-Safe
Image Credit: Live Aquaria
 

Best Micro-Organisms For A Reef Tank Clean-Up Crew

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

  • Absorbs ammonia, nitrites, nitrates, phosphates, silica, etc.
  • Great food for copepods, rotifers, corals, etc.
Image Credit: Algae Barn

Copepods (Tiger, Tisbe, etc.)

  • Detritus eater
  • Great live food for corals and fish
Image Credit: Live Aquaria

Rotifers

  • Detritus Eater
  • Great live food for corals and fish
Image Credit: Live Aquaria
 

Best Worms For A Reef Tank Clean-Up Crew

Whether you like it or not, you’ll most likely end up with worms of some kind in your aquarium. You’re not likely to find these for sale anywhere but 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 (and most) opinion. Most will want to do their best to remove them from their aquarium but as a member of a clean-up crew they’re not all bad. YMMV

Bristle Worms

  • Detritus Scavenger
Image Credit: Wild Singapore

Spaghetti Worms

  • Detritus eater
Image Credit: Ken-ichi Ueda via Flickr

Peanut Worms

  • Detritus Eater
Image Credit: BeakerBob via Reef2Reef
 

Best Fish For A Reef Tank Clean-Up Crew

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

  • Algae Eater including Green Hair Algae
  • Reef-Safe
  • 30-gallon tank minimum
Image Credit: Live Aquaria

Six Line Wrasse

  • Bristle Worm Eater
  • Can eat other small pests
  • Aggressive toward small shrimp, snails, crabs, and smaller fish
  • Jumper – screen top suggested
  • Reef-Safe
  • 55-gallon tank minimum
Image Credit: Live Aquaria

Orchid Dottyback

  • Bristle worm eater
  • Reef-Safe
  • 30-gallon tank minimum
Image Credit: Live Aquaria

Copperband Butterfly

  • Aiptasia eater
  • Difficult fish – Research before purchase
  • May nip at feather dusters and anemones – Keep well fed
  • Requires 125-gallon+ tank
Image Credit: Live Aquaria

Filefish

  • Aiptasia Eater
  • 30-gallon tank minimum
Image Credit: Live Aquaria

Kole Tang

  • Algae Eater
  • Diatom Eater
  • Reef-Safe
  • 70-gallon tank minimum
Image Credit: Live Aquaria

Worst Choices For A Reef Tank Clean-Up Crew

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

Sand Sifting Starfish

While an excellent sand-sifter, they also feed on beneficial bacteria in your sand bed. Many are also known to die after they’ve depleted your sand bed of nutrients.

Image Credit: Live Aquaria

Bumble Bee Snail

Prey on other snails.

Image Credit: Live Aquaria

Sea Urchin

Voracious algae eater and scavenger. Poor choice for reef tanks because they will bulldoze through rock and knock things over. Also known to feed on some things you might not want them too.

Image Credit: Live Aquaria

Margarita Snail

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

Image Credit: Live Aquaria

Lettuce Nudibranch

Hair algae eater but only recommended for advanced reefers to care for.

Image Credit: Live Aquaria

Berghia Nudibranch

A very slow Aiptasia eater. Die once the Aiptasia has been removed.

Image Credit: revhtree via Reef2Reef

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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