The Salty Side: Saltwater Aquariums for Beginners

Saltwater Clean Up Crew

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When can I add clean up crew?

Clean up crew should be added once the tank has been cycled.  More info on tank cycling can be found here

Do I need to drip acclimate clean up crew?

Yes!  When adding any clean up crew to your saltwater aquarium, they should be slowly acclimatised by a process called drip acclimation.  Invertebrates are extremely sensitive to changes in temperature, pH etc. so it is important to use this method whenever introducing new invertebrates (ie. shrimps, snails, hermit crabs, starfish) to your tank.  

Although I have never personally had this problem, it has been mentioned that different species of clean up crew to kill each other in a confined space.  I’d just keep a close eye on them and separate them if the need arises.  

What do I feed my clean up crew?

The primary reason you’ll want to be adding cuc to your reef aquarium is to reduce algae and detritus.  If however, your clean up crew have done what they’re supposed to do, there may not be much food left for them to eat.  You will therefore need to supplement their diet in order to prevent them dying of starvation.

If you have any predatory fish, such as triggers, in your tank, make sure they are well fed (not overfed!) as if hungry, they won’t mind dining on a hermit or snail!

The best clean up crew for a reef tank

1. Hermit Crabs

Hermit crabs are resilient invertebrates.  They are great scavengers that specialise in feeding on detritus and left over food in the tank. 

Hermit crabs are very active and can be seen working through the tank day and night. They are great at clearing detritus from within the natural crevices in live rock and will also root around in the surface of the sand looking for things to eat.   

Hermit crabs are pretty much self-sufficient.

The number of hermit crabs you keep in your tank will be determined by how large your tank is. Hermits are fairly solitary invertebrates and do tend to ‘argue’ with other hermits, killing smaller counterparts at times. This may have something to do with shell envy because they are certainly not territorial. Typically a 4ft tank can accommodate up to 10 hermit crabs. 

One tip to keeping any hermit crab, is to provide larger shells for them to ‘move house’ to when they outgrow their current shell.  This should also keep the peace between the crabs as they are less likely to fight one another for their shell or resort to killing any snails you may have in your tank to hijack theirs.

Salinity:                                1.023 – 1.025

pH:                                         8.1 – 8.4

Two of the most common hermit crabs you will more than likely come across are:

Dwarf Blue Leg Hermit Crab (Clibanarius tricolor)

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Scarlet Reef Hermit Crab (Paguristes cadenati)[1]

This red legged hermit crab is a common sight in marine fish shops.  They are instantly recognisable and have probably been one of the most recommended clean up crew members to those setting up their first marine aquarium. 

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Please note that it is not recommended to keep red legged hermit crabs together with blue legged hermit crabs

2. Emerald Crab (Mithraculus sculptus)

Emerald Crab Saltwater Aquarium Clean Up Crew
Emerald Crab - Photo kindly provided by Megan Hodge[6]

You can have more than one emerald crab in your saltwater aquarium. 

Emerald crabs are introduced to a saltwater tank to control the proliferation of algae.  They are especially good at getting rid of bubble algae.

The green colour of Emerald Crabs is a result of the main diet being that of algae. A lack of algae therefore will result in the crab losing its green colour.

If algae is limited in your aquarium you will need to supplement their diet with Nori (dried seaweed) and to some degree meaty foods too. With a limited food source Emerald Crabs have been known to start snacking on coral and other small tank inhabitants. 

Emerald crabs need places to hide so make sure there is live rock for them to shelter in or under. 

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3. Blue Tuxedo Urchin (Mespilia globulus)[2]

Active in both day and night time, Tuxedo urchins are a brilliant addition as a general cleaner. They will feed on mainly Coralline algae but are also voracious eaters of Green Hair algae.

Tuxedo urchins end up having bits of sand, small pieces of shell or coral stuck on their bodies in order to keep themselves camouflaged. 

As with the Emerald crab, you need to ensure you have enough live rock for them to graze on and hide in.

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4. Snails

Snails are pretty much a common denominator in any saltwater aquarium. They can eat a lot of algae[3]!  They are great at getting into small spaces and crevices that bigger clean up crew members aren’t able to.

Their biggest advantage is that they can cling to the side of the glass cleaning any algae in their path therefore making your job keeping the glass clean, much easier!

In order to grow their shells they need good, constant levels of calcium.  The recommended amount of calcium for snails is 420ppm[4].

If you want to know how many snails you should get or which type of snail is best for a particular type of algae, you might find this article helpful. 

Certain snails, such as conches are also known to tip over small, loose stones and corals as they move about scavenging for food.  So make sure they have been secured!

It is worth keeping an eye on some of the snails as they are unable to right themselves after falling over. If they have nothing to grip onto they can stay upturned, eventually falling prey to both fish and crabs.

Strawberry Conch (Strombus luhuanus)

The Strawberry conch is a very popular choice and like all conches, is peaceful.

It’s operculum enables it to propel itself forward and move along the bottom of the tank as well as functioning as a ‘lid’ which covers the conch’s insides. These soft parts are particularly vulnerable to predators when lying on it’s back. This is never intentional and usually happens when it has fallen or been knocked over.

It’s vacuum cleaner-like appendage keeps surfaces free from algae. 

Like the other snails, this cuc member does not eat coral and is a perfect addition to any saltwater aquarium.

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Nassarius Snail

nassarius clean up crew
Nassarius Snail- Photo kindly provided by Clay van Schalkwijk [7]

Nassarius snails are excellent scavengers[5], burying themselves in the sand during the day. Come nightfall, these little creatures are on the hunt for any leftover food.  In the process they will disturb the sand, thereby aerating it. 

They require a good depth of sand but of which should be no less than 1”.  Although nocturnal, these snails often show themselves during feeding time. 

Nassarius snails have a proboscis which sticks out of the sand and they can smell when food is nearby.  The way they suddenly appear out of the sand is what gives them the nickname ‘Zombie snails’.   

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Turbo Snail

Turbo snails have been given their name due to the fact that their shells resemble a turban.

There are many different types of turbo snail such as the Zebra Striped Turbo snail, Astraea Turbo snail, Chestnut Turbo snail, Mexican Turbo snail (see below), Banded Trochus Turbo snail and many more! 

They are excellent for keeping your glass and rocks free from algae and are considered hardy members of the clean up crew.   

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Mexican Turbo Snail (Turbo fluctuosa)

The larger the snail, the more algae they eat and turbo snails don’t get much larger than the Mexican Turbo.  Having said that, it is not recommended to get more than one or two at a time (depending on the size of the tank) as once the algae has been eaten you will need to supplement their diets with nori (dried seaweed).

Make sure any coral is secured as these larger snails can easily knock them over. 

One thing to note is that Mexican Turbo snails cannot right themselves once they fall over.  Keep an eye out and if you do see one that has fallen on it’s back, you will need to give it a hand and turn it over. 

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So there you have it

You will hopefully now know about the many different clean up crew members you can get for your reef tank.

There are many more but the above are by far the most popular.


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