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.
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.
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.
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.
Image Credit: Live Aquaria
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.
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
Fish don’t just have to be for entertainment value and beauty alone. Some fish are great at helping control issues in your aquarium.
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.
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.
Prey on other snails.
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.
A cold-water snail that will slowly die in the warm waters of our reef tanks.
Hair algae eater but only recommended for advanced reefers to care for.
A very slow Aiptasia eater. Die once the Aiptasia has been removed.
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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