The symbiosis that exists between cleaner shrimp and their fish clients is a fascinating spectacle to observe in the aquarium.
While there are numerous shrimp species that can justifiably be called “cleaners”, this article will be limited to three very popular and relatively easy-to-keep species of the genus Lysmata—specifically the Skunk Cleaner Shrimp (Lysmata amboinensis), the Blood Shrimp (Lysmata debelius) and Peppermint Shrimp (Lysmata wurdemanni). All these species are strikingly beautiful animals, with vibrant colouration that “advertises” their cleaning services. These colours attract fish, which will present themselves to these shrimps to be picked clean of external parasites and dead tissue. Even large predatory fish will allow themselves to be picked clean without making a meal out of the shrimp (usually).
Feeding and Housing
Fortunately, unlike “cleaner” wrasses (Labroides sp. etc), which are obligate cleaners (feeding exclusively on parasites) and usually starve to death in captivity, the cleaner shrimps are extremely easy to feed in aquarium and will readily accept just about any prepared foods offered to the other inhabitants in aquarium.
Most cleaner shrimp also make great candidates for smaller systems, even nano tanks, provided stable conditions and excellent water quality are maintained. Although suitable for smaller systems, these shrimp will be equally at home in larger systems. In addition to water-quality considerations, the rockwork in tanks housing cleaner shrimps should be arranged to provide lots of caves, overhangs and ledges so the shrimps have plenty of places to take refuge.
Water Quality and Acclimation
On the issue of water quality, shrimps of the genus Lysmata are not tolerant of fluctuating or declining water quality, including; the build-up of nitrate. Being very sensitive to sudden changes in water parameters, these shrimp must be acclimated very carefully and methodically to new systems.
Skunk Cleaner Shrimp (Lysmata amboinensis)
The Skunk Cleaner Shrimp (Lysmata amboinensis), hails from the Indo-Pacific and is yellow overall with a bright-red band along the length of its back. Running down the centre of the red band is a conspicuous, thinner white stripe. This shrimp’s front legs and long, waving antennae are also brilliant white. Incidentally, there’s an almost identical-looking Western Atlantic species (Lysmata grabhami) out there, but you’re much more likely to encounter Lysmata amboinensis when shopping at your local aquarium store and fortunately the care requirements are almost identical for both.
Based on reports of many hobbyists, Skunk Cleaner Shrimp are the best of the three shrimp described here when it comes to ridding tank mates of parasites. This species will also climb onto the hobbyists hand and give it a good clean – especially if the hobbyist happens to be pinching a little fish food when they put their hand in the tank.
Blood Shrimp (Lysmata debelius)
Another Indo-Pacific cleaner, the Blood Shrimp (Lysmata debelius) is among the most beautiful shrimp available to the hobbyist. This species, commonly called the blood shrimp, fire shrimp or scarlet cleaner shrimp, is bright red overall with white “stockings” on its legs, white antennae and a smattering of white dots on the anterior portion of its body. (See: Blood Shrimp (Lysmata debelius))
The Blood Shrimp is a shy species and more reclusive than the other species on this list. As such, although it will clean piscine tank mates and hobbyists’ hands, it will do so with a lot less reliably and with less aggression than the Skunk Cleaner Shrimp will. Creating several ledges and overhangs in the rockwork toward the front of the tank will increase your opportunities to view this reclusive shrimp.
Peppermint Shrimp (Lysmata wurdemanni)
Peppermint Shrimp are the least reliable when it comes to actually exhibiting cleaning behaviour in the aquarium, but it is a worthy choice for the aquarium nonetheless. This inhabitant of the Western Atlantic is among several species that are commonly called Peppermint Shrimp, owing to their intricate red-and-white striping. While this shrimp is beautiful and relatively easy to care for, it is most commonly purchased to rid the aquarium of invasive Aiptasia anemones. (See: Peppermint Shrimp)
However, if you introduce this species for Aiptasia eradication, be aware that not all specimens are created equal in this regard. Some will go to town on the anemones while others might pay them no attention at all. Also, not all species given the common name “peppermint shrimp” are Aiptasia eaters—and one, Lysmata californica, is a cool-water species that is not even suitable for tropical aquariums. Make sure the shrimp you’re getting is Lysmata wurdemanni if your objective is Aiptasia control.
Suitable Tank Mates
Cleaner shrimp can be kept with any fish that aren’t prone to eating small crustaceans, including; triggerfishes, puffers, groupers, larger hawk fish, larger wrasses, morays and lionfish, are not suitable tank mates. Despite the fact that these fishes will take advantage of cleaner shrimps’ services in the wild, there is an increased chance of these fish predating on crustaceans in the aquarium. With respect to their inclusion in reef systems, the Skunk Cleaner Shrimp and Blood Shrimp can be generally trusted to leave corals and other sessile invertebrates alone. Peppermint Shrimp may be less trustworthy in reef tanks. After all, it’s not too much of a stretch for an Aiptasia-munching shrimp to develop a taste for other invertebrates.