When first establishing a marine aquarium the first inhabitants
added to the system are the members of what is know as the "Clean up
Crew". This crew is almost always comprised of a mixture of snails,
hermit crabs and starfish as recommended by any number of local stores
or those found online.
This article will address what I feel has become a bad habit
within the hobby. The use of species that are not suited for a tropical
rocky habitat and in numbers that far exceed the aquarium's ability to
provide for their needs. Some of this information, if you care to use
it, will require you to be able to identify the various species that
are offered for sale. I will include links to online resources that
will hopefully allow you to do so.
I highly recommend Reef Cleaners as the best source for clean up crews.
The Limpets, Belongs to the same family as the Scutus. There are
a few species that can be found on live rock, but the majority of them
are shore line creatures capable of withstanding exposure to air during
low tides. If available, some of the smaller species could be suitable
for our aquariums. Super Family - Neritoidea
Family - Neritidae Neritinae Neritini
- Please see this link for Identification purposes.
Most Nerites are not suited for aquariums simply because they are
inter tidal, moving above the water line and only returning to the water
to feed upon algae. I doubt that any of the species made available
would be of a suitable species simply because the collectors can easily
gather them by their hundreds near the shallow shore lines. Super Family - Haliotoidea
Family - Haliotidae
- Please see this link for Identification purposes.
The Abalone - Most species within this family are too large for a typical aquarium with one exception. The species Haliotis asinina
, also know as the ass or donkey ear abalone remains relatively small
compared to other members of this group averaging three to four inches
in length. Still a fairly large snail and one that I would only
recommend for the larger aquariums. Order - Polyplacophora
- Please see this article link.
The Chitons. A very common hitch hiking find within live
rock. Most species will prove to be harmless grazers and add a unique
animal to your aquariums diversity. I do not know of any sources
for purchase or those who have successfully bred and raised them.
You may have noted that the Nassarius species of snails is lacking,
this was not an oversight but simply my view that with the use of live
rock and its many scavengers, there is no need to keep such snails as
they most likely will not find enough to eat, or will out compete the
many other members of your clean up crew.
For more information on snails please see my Hitch Hikers Guide to the Reefs. CRABS :
do not allow any of the free ranging species of crabs within my own
aquarium system simply because they are all omnivores, capable of
getting by on algae, but should they find that meatier items are easily
available within your aquarium, such as snails, tube worms and a host
of other inverts, they can become quite efficient little predators.
The hermit crabs are often sold in great numbers as members of a
clean up crew package. This may be fine for fish only systems
that the crabs have little chance to be of harm, but within a reef
aquarium that strives to keep a diversity of life, they can and will
become very detrimental to the goal of maintaining any diversity of
life. These concerns apply to all crabs, including the popular
"emerald" crabs sold for algae control. The only crab species
that I allow within my system are those that are commensals, never
leaving their host coral or anemone.
Free roaming hermit crabs cause more trouble than they are worth
over the long term. There are much safer alternatives for detritus and
left over food clean up.
For more information concerning the crab species that are and are not reef safe, please see my Hitch Hikers Guide to the Reefs
members of a clean up crew, I would recommend only the brittle
star species. Most all other starfish are predators and do not
belong within a reef aquarium setting.
A typical brittle starfish. Such starfish will usually pick a
specific place to settle and will remain there, extending its arms in
search of left over food or detritus while keeping its vulnerable central
disc hidden and safe from predators. The brittle starfish species
can be found in any number of sizes, with most being an average that
makes them suitable for our aquariums. Please see the relevant
section of my hitch hiker pages for more information on starfish
species per their being reef safe or not. A great many species of
brittle starfish find their way into our aquariums as hitch hikers
within live rock and at times, live sand. Caution :
as with any marine family group, there are those members that do not
belong in an enclosed aquarium system. The brittle starfish Ophiarachna incrassata
(large green species) is a very active predator of fish.
The Mini Brittle Starfish - With the purchase of live sand and
live rock, it is fairly certain that you will obtain any number of very
small species of brittle starfish. Quite a few species will bury
themselves into the sand leaving only their arms extended to catch
passing food particles. It is unknown as to how they reproduce within
our systems but they manage to do so. If you do find yourself
lucky enough to have a large population, I encourage you to share them
with fellow hobbyists. Asterina anomal
- Yet another commonly found hitch hiker that can prove to be a
beneficial member of the herbivore clean up crew. With sufficient food
sources, these small starfish can reproduce within our aquariums by
casting off their arms which then form new starfish. Such a
reproductive method is why they appear to have different sized arms at
all times. Caution :
With the Asterina family having hundreds of members, and their
being little studied, you may on the rare occasion find what appears to
be the above mentioned species yet it will be a coral predator. If you
do find what appears to be an Asterina anomal
on a coral, it is best to remove it and all others that look like it.
Again, I want to stress that this is a rare event and do not want to
condemn all like starfish for the bad habits of a few members.
Please note that the so called sand sifting starfish are not
recommended simply because they, through their sifting of the sand are
only doing so in order to find and eat the sand dwelling infauna that
you paid for when you purchased live sand. The same can be said of any
animal that actively sifts the sand such as some goby species. Shrimp :
I would not recommend any of the decorative shrimp such as the
peppermints or cleaner shrimp as they do prey upon other small
invertebrates within a reef aquarium. The only members of this
crustacean family that I allow within my aquarium are the pistol or
snapping shrimp. By forming burrows under the sand and within the live
rock, they are effective at removing left over food particles and
The snapping or pistol shrimp make for an interesting member of
any clean up crew. Although rarely seen once they have established a
burrow system, they do however keep their areas cleaned of any food
particles. Most species that end up as members of our clean up crew
came to us by hitch hiking in with live rock.
The Thalassinidean shrimp are also a very frequent find within
live rock. I would wager that a great many aquariums have a
number of these shrimp yet do not know it as they are very cryptic,
remaining forever within their live rock burrows. Sea Cucumbers :
I doubt I would ever have a reef aquarium without at least one sea
cucumber being present. Having the surface of the sand bed kept
clean is too good of a deal to pass up. When selecting a suitable
species, your aquarium size must be taken into account. I would
recommend no more than one sea cucumber per seventy five gallons of
tank space. Any more than that and you risk starving them to death.
There are some species of sea cucumbers that I avoid simply
because they are quick to expel and could kill my fish. For more
information concerning species selections, please see this link
While not a complicated animal to care for, there are a few
concerns to take into consideration when adding a sea cucumber to your
aquarium. Not being the quickest or brightest of creatures, any pump
inlet that is not covered or protected will pose a very real danger to
your sea cucumber. Keeping the inlet guards that should have come with
your pump when you purchased it, in place, will prevent any such
accidents from happening.
You will also want to
ensure that you do not have any species of fish that are known to be predators
of sea cucumbers. Most Trigger fish, some Wrasses and Butterfly fish will nip at
the tube feet of sea cucumbers. Although sea cucumbers are nocturnal, our rock
landscaping usually does not provide enough protection to hide in and be
completely safe from predatory fish.
Other than those few simple
precautions, a sea cucumber's only real danger within our aquariums is from
starving to death. If you notice that your sea cucumber is slowly shrinking
(getting smaller), then it would be a good idea to try and find it another home
that can provide the amount of detritus and organics it needs to thrive. Sea Urchins :
Not recommended for reef aquariums simply because they are very
efficient at removing any and all life from our live rock. There are
quite a few species that during their grazing, will consume all life
that is found on what ever patch of rock they happen to be feeding on.
Some species have been known to eat soft corals as well.
Just as with all
animals being considered for your aquarium, you should research each species for
its suitability. Be aware that some species are venomous and can pose a health
risk to you as well. The Worms :
The unsung heroes of any clean up crew. While some species are
slowly becoming available for purchase, you will most likely get a
variety of worms hitch hiking in on live rock. Please do not
assume that just because they are worms that they are some how
harmful. Even when large, most all species are very beneficial
to our aquariums and their presence should be encouraged.
Some of the most commonly found and most beneficial of species, there
are of course a great many other very beneficial worms, both large and
small that should be looked upon as the foundation of any healthy clean
up crew. For more information please see the worm section
of my hitch
Eurythoe complanata - Probably the most commonly
found worm and is a harmless scavenger, a benefit to our systems. It is
my opinion that these worms are an excellent replacement for the use of
destructive hermit crabs.
The Cirratulids, or better known as the hair worms. Any
number of species can be found within live rocks and live sand as they
are indirect filter feeders living off of detritus and other small food
The Terebellidae or spaghetti worms. Yet another common hitch
hiker and one of great benefit as they also inhabit both live rocks and
live sand, only extending their feeding tentacles in search of detritus
and other food particles.
The Sipunculida worms or peanut worms. One of the most
commonly found worms living within live rock extending their feeding
proboscis in search of detritus and left over food particles while
keeping their peanut shaped body hidden within the rock. Sea Slugs & Nudibranch :
Elysia crispata -
The Lettuce nudibranch, eats a variety of large algae but seems to
prefer the bryopsis filament algae. A delicate species and should
only be kept by the more experienced hobbyist.
- This species is an obvious herbivore yet it is unknown if it is
a specialized feeder or not. At this time I do not know of any sources
to purchase these slugs yet they can be found as hitch hikers on rare
occasions. Aplysia punctata -
This Sea Hare is commonly sold and is a species I do not recommend for
our warm tropical aquariums as it is a subtropical to cold water
species. Zooplankton :
With the purchase of live rock and live sand, you are bound to obtain
quite a number of tiny animals that if encouraged can not only be a
benefit in helping to clean house, but if they themselves are
encouraged to multiply can provide quite a bit of live food for your
other pets as well.
A few photo examples of the more commonly found animals that I encourage through the use of phytoplankton dosing. Meet Your SandBed's Clean up Crew :
the purchase or collection of live sand, you of course obtain a great
many animals that live within such sandy habitats. These mostly
microscopic animals are what keeps our deep sand beds
functional by providing not only the removal of organics, but in
preventing the sand from forming clumps by their many microscopic
movements through the sand. A great deal of live food is also produced
in such sandbeds and yet another good reason to consider keeping as
much diversity of life as possible. A few photo examples of but a
few sand dwelling animals : Stocking Methods and Levels for new Reef Aquariums :
it is most likely that a clean up crew, live rock and live sand will be
purchased for a newly established reef aquarium, It would make sense
that when doing so, the life that will be purchased be given their best
chances to survive. Their success will ensure your success in
maintaining a reef aquarium and one that is more realistic. Here
is a brief stocking schedule that takes biology into account and
ignores your wish to have a fully stocked reef aquarium by weeks end.
Be patient and let the aquarium's biology find its balance through you
properly stocking the aquarium and giving it the time needed to become
a functional ecosystem. Please note that this is how I have done "it"
and will continue to do so for all new aquariums that I may start.
There are other methods of course which I feel do not fully take all of
the life and its required time into account.
all of the aquariums equipment is installed and the aquarium filled
with salt water, then its time to get the biological ball rolling.
Just as with any ecosystem, its most important players are usually
always the smallest. An easy way to think of it, is it being exactly
what it is, a food chain. With bacteria being the most important
and least appreciated members of your clean up crew as well as the
beginning of that chain.
Sand bed - Being that it
will be on the bottom of the aquarium, it should of course go into the
aquarium first. How deep a sandbed is up to you as I will not try and
address the pros and cons of having either a shallow dead sandbed or a
deep live sandbed. I of course prefer a live deep sand bed for
the diversity of life that it brings to the aquarium as well as
providing the proper habitat for other life forms and its
denitrification potential. Remember now, this is a Reef aquarium not a
coral display tank.
a three inch layer of "dead" sand on the bottom of the aquarium.
This will become the base for the later addition of live sand.
Place your base rock on top of or down into this base sand, these
will of course be the base for the later addition of live rock.
Leave all equipment running with the exception of the lights.
There is no reason at this point to start growing algae when it will
soon be covered over.
4. Take a one half inch
long piece of shrimp meat and drop it into the tank. This will be
the source of ammonia needed to start the biofilms (bacteria).
Allow the aquarium to cycle which may take a few weeks. After one
week, start doing daily tests for ammonia and nitrates. Once you can
detect a nitrate level of "10", then you may remove what remains of the
shrimp meat as having detectable levels of nitrates means that the
initial bacterial biofilm is in place.
the removal of the shrimp meat, allow the aquarium to run as is until
you can no longer detect any ammonia. Be prepared to add your live sand
and live rock as soon as possible once you have undetectable ammonia
After the initial cycle is complete:
1. Place at least another three inches of truly live sand on top
of the base sand. When I say "truly" live sand, I do not mean
that wet sand in a bag that is sold as live sand. That sand is simply
base sand that may, or may not have some bacteria on it. The live sand
I speak of is loaded with a great many microscopic and not so
microscopic sand infauna (worms, forams, pods and so on).
2. Place your uncured
live rock on top of the base rock and form your landscape, trying to keep future coral placements in mind.
3. Turn on your lighting system to be run on a 12 hour day / night period.
For the next four weeks take daily ammonia tests. If you detect
the ammonia levels starting to register or rise, you must take action
to reduce the ammonia through water changes. This means that you should
have plenty of salt mix and RO or distilled fresh water on hand. You
can not allow ammonia to build up as it will very quickly kill all of
that life you just added to the aquarium within the live rock and live
After that first month or maybe more,
your ammonia levels should become undetectable again and remain there.
Now we wait for three more months and let the aquarium continue its
cycle while allowing any algae to grow. It is not going to be a
pretty sight, but do not panic and start trying to control what has to
happen. If you do start trying to prevent algae growth at this time,
you are only going to delay the inevitable and make things harder for
you and your aquarium later on.
During this three month period :
1. Study and familiarize yourself with saltwater chemistry issues
such as phosphates, pH, calcium and so on.
2. Plan out your coral
selections. This is going to take studying what each species requirements are.
3. Read all that you can find the time to do so concerning reef habitats and reef aquariums.
Now that those three months are over and your aquarium looks like a
golf course, it is time to add the larger members of your clean up
Using a 100 gallon aquarium as a guide, I would add
the following members of the clean up crew and in the stated
quantities. The numbers of each species will of course have to be
adjusted per your aquarium's size.
snails - At least three different species for a total of 20 snails all
together. I know that it is usually recommend to add a great many
more at one time, but what happens when too many snails consume all the
algae quickly and run out of food? If after two months you note that
the original 20 are not able to keep up with algae growth, then add ten
more. Wait two months and add ten more if need be and so on.
2. A single sea cucumber - Do not expect the sea cucumber
to clean your sand's surface area quickly. It is going to take time. To
add more than one will only ensure that one or all of them will slowly
3. Brittle Starfish - Five of the medium/larger species and/or twenty of the mini species.
4. At this time, I would start a daily drip dosing of phytoplankton to encourage copepod and amphipod populations.
Wait another three months - During this next three month period,
the algae will get eaten, the water quality will be perfect and all the
hitch hiking members of the clean up crew will be doing very well.
Coralline algae should start growing at this time also. Continue
to study and planning out your coral and fish selections.
Now that those additional three months are over, your aquarium is ready
for its coral occupants. All the biology of the aquarium is balanced,
the water is pristine and you have learned a great deal by your
studying thus giving you the knowledge and the confidence to ensure
your coral pets will be with you for a great many years. Since
corals place a very light bioload on an aquarium system, do not concern
yourself that you may add too many specimens at one time. Putting four
to five corals into your aquarium each month is acceptable.
Also at this time, you can set up your quarantine tank
and put your first fish into it for its six week stay within the
quarantine tank. This is a must do procedure if you wish to have
any hope at all in avoiding the introduction of parasites and diseases
into your reef aquarium. For those aquariums that are at least 50
gallons or larger, I would suggest a brown scopas tang as your first
fish. I have one within my 80 gallon display aquarium and it ensures
that any and all filament (hair) algae and macro algae are kept under