Clean up in the Marine Aisle: Detritus Feeders Edition

By Hannah Henegar

detritus feedersDetritus feeders, reef cleaners and aquarium cleaner organisms are collectively lumped into a group of very dissimilar phyla and families and are called janitors, clean up crews, or other marketing names.  Marine Invertebrates are the saltwater clean up crew for the ocean, and there are many beneficial organism to help control waste and detritus.

Beneficial Marine Invertebrates

The two basic types of beneficial marine invertebrates to consider are herbivorous invertebrates that feed on algae and scavengers that comb aquarium substrate for organic waste. Both types of invertebrates are excellent, safe alternatives to the harsh chemicals and aggressive cleaning often employed to address nuisance algae. Saltwater invertebrates, such as snails, crabs, and shrimp, are known as the ocean’s cleanup crew for a reason. They consume mass amounts of detritus, algae, and excess food. Adding some to your aquarium may work wonders for your problems with keeping it clean.


Saltwater algae and freshwater algae  are unsightly in any home aquarium. If left unchecked, the smallest algae strand can quickly overtake even the largest of aquariums. Keep algae in check by adding snails and crabs to your aquarium. However, keep in mind that no one species of algae eater can control all the different types of algae present in your aquarium. In other words, employ a variety of algae eaters for the most efficient and comprehensive algae control. Introduce algae-eating snails for film algae, hermit crabs for hair algae removal, and Emerald Mithrax Crabs to keep bubble algae under control.


Organic detritus, including food and fish waste, settles to the substrate in even the best-filtered marine aquariums. These wastes contribute to high phosphate, ammonia, and nitrite levels, which not only encourage aggressive algae growth but can also stress or kill sensitive aquarium inhabitants. By adding scavenging invertebrates, such as sea stars and sea cucumbers, you build an exotic army of waste removers and sand aerators.

The Seven Best Freshwater Aquarium Algae Eaters

Algae eaters are a great addition in a freshwater tank to help control and reduce unsightly and potentially damaging algae prorogation. They come in a variety of species, including shrimps, snails and tank cleaning fish. Certain algae-eaters prefer certain types of algae, so with a mix of species you can ensure that all or most of the algae presence can be controlled.

Capability with the other fishes and creatures is an issue, though. You need to know how the introduction of a algae eating species will impact the other animals in your tank. This means keeping the aggression and competition down by keeping incompatible species out of the tank environment.

Algae-eaters can be kept in their own separate tanks for long-term survival and then temporarily moved to another tank where they are needed. It is also important to realize that just like any other pet, you should make sure your algae help-mates have enough commercial food to sustain them for a healthy existence.

1. Amano Shrimp

The Amano shrimp is a very popular and active algae-eating species. They are ravenous eaters, consuming not only most algae, but eat dead plant castoff material (detritus) and clean the tank of leftover food.

They are quite small, averaging between 3.5 to 5 centimeters, making them ideal for a smaller tank. They only resist eating blue-green and green spot algae. Excessive amounts of commercial food will slow their appetites and it is best to introduce three or more individuals per tank.

2. Ramshorn Snails

Ramshorn snails reach sizes up to 2 centimeters and have a brown or red coloring. Ordinarily, they do not consume freshwater aquarium plants unless they are taxed for algae, which could put Hygrophila and similar plants on their menu. They concentrate on algae-covered plants, tank rocks, aquarium glass and other decorations. They will not pass up detritus, fish eggs and leftover food.

3. Nerite Snails

The Nerite snail is known for its attractive, colorful shell patterns. They measure 3 centimeters when fully grown. Consummate algae eaters, the Zebra Neritinas will also seek out the green spot algae as well as the moss-like green beard variety. Keep your pH level above 7 for healthy shell growth. Keep Cichlids and Loaches separated from them due to predatory behavior. You should keep the tank lid firmly sealed over the top since these snails can climb out.

4. Twig Catfish

The Twig Catfish is a delicate, suckermouth algae-eating catfish, also known as the Whiptail Catfish. They average 10 to 20 centimeters in length with a brownish, slender body. It consumes most species of algae but its diet should be supplemented with spirulina algae tablets a couple times a week.

5. Bristlenose Plecos

You will find the Bristlenose Plecos one of the most popular and readily available algae eaters on the market. They often look comical, with a distorted growth about the head and nose. They have blunt, stout bodies that grow from 10 to 15 centimeters in length. They require a lot of green foods, including bottom-lying algae tablets and blanched vegetables.

You will need to provide these fish with dark substrate material and rock shelters on the bottom of the tank since they feed at night and retreat to safety. Keep the water agitated with a slight current and plenty of oxygen.

6. Siamese Algae Eater

. It is a hardy, strong swimmer and jumper, attaining lengths of up to 14 centimeters. It is a voracious eater and will consume not only algae from plants, glass and decorations, but leftover pellets, parboiled vegetables, flake food and live food. They have an appetite for flatworms, which are considered a nuisance. They don’t mind feasting on brush and thread algae, types commonly ignored by other algae eaters. They need plenty of oxygen in water temperatures around 25 degrees Celsius. They are sensitive to pH levels that fall outside of 7. They require a large amount of living plants and plenty of room to explore and feed which makes a longer tank more desirable.

7. Malaysian Trumpet Snail

These small snails never get any larger than 2 centimeters and will eat just about anything in the organic debris department as well as most algae. They do not harm plants during feeding when they are on the surface at night, but prefer a subterranean life under the gravel or substrate during the day. They spend a lot of time digging under the gravel and you will have to look very close to see their movement. You should keep the water slightly alkaline for shell growth, like other crustaceans. These snails are sensitive to dirty and contaminated water and will often retreat up the sides of the aquarium glass as a survival maneuver.

Whether it be a marine invertebrate or a cleaner fish, they are beneficial to add to any type of aquarium. It is your choice for which you choose to add your own personal touch to your little friends’ home.