Invertebrates are an essential part of planted tanks, but there’s a bit more to their care than tossing in some ghost shrimp and hoping for the best. Shrimp, especially, seem to mystify beginners. While the overall care is easy, they often seem prone to some specific issues. Are you looking to learn more about freshwater aquarium shrimp? Read on!
The Types of Freshwater Shrimp
There are dozens of wild species of freshwater shrimp. Only a few of them make it into our aquariums, however. There are four or five main species of interest to the freshwater aquarist, however, and some confusion exists. We’re going to take a look at the main shrimp in descending order of specialty of care.
This isn’t a comprehensive list, but it does cover the vast majority of shrimp found in the aquarium trade. A good LFS might carry a half dozen or more “species” so this can be confusing to some people, but read on and I’ll show you how the whole thing works!
1. Ghost Shrimp (Palaemonetes Paludosus)
- Diet: Omnivorous
- Size: 1 ½” to 2″
- Experience Level Required: Beginner
- Synonyms: Glass Shrimp
Ghost shrimp were the main fare available for a long time. They’re small shrimp with a “glassy” exterior that renders them transparent. Most sources call their maximum size at 1 ½”, but I’ve seen them get considerably larger.
These omnivorous shrimp are easy-going and spend most of their time plucking at detritus on the bottom of the tank. They’re not all that fascinating to watch, in my opinion, and their clear coloration makes them disappear in planted tanks. They’re also not as useful as Neocardinia sp. or Amano shrimp for cleaning algae.
Their best use is in community tanks with peaceful fish. Like all shrimp species, the vast majority of fish find them delicious. If it can fit in your fish’s mouth, then they’re at risk of being eaten. They make good companions for peaceful fish like tetra and rasboras, however, as long as there are enough places for them to hide.
Once they’re full size, they’ll no longer be at risk of being dinner. Since they eat detritus, a colony of 5-6 per 20 gallons of volume can help manage nitrate levels.
There’s one big thing that most people aren’t aware of. Ghost shrimp actually comprise a few species, the Latin name above is simply the most common. In the wild, they’re found alongside the look-alike Whisper Shrimp.
Whisper Shrimp are aggressive, predatory shrimp. You need to be careful when purchasing your Ghost Shrimp to observe them in the tank. Whispers have longer foreclaws that extend from their body, and they’ll make short work of anything they can catch.
For that reason, I advise quarantining any new Ghost Shrimp under 1″ until you can make a positive identification. Whispers will eat other shrimp, fish fry, and even smaller fish. They also reach 2 ½” or more in length.
Buying Whispers on purpose does happen, and they’re fine with most fish. That said, I’m not a big fan. Their care requirements are basically the same as Ghost Shrimp, just be careful who you house them with.
2. Dwarf Shrimp (Neocardinia Davidi)
- Diet: Omnivorous, algae
- Size: 1 ½” to 2″
- Experience Level Required: Beginner
- Synonyms: Cherry Shrimp, Orange Shrimp, Blue Rili Shrimp, Yellow Dwarf Shrimp, etc.
Cherry Shrimp are a common feature in aquariums. I’ve got some sitting a few inches from where I’m typing. Your LFS probably has a few hundred. They’re second only to Amano Shrimp as companions to high-end aquatic tanks. As long as you have a filter and a heater… the only requirement for keeping them is having fish that won’t eat them.
Learn more: How to Care for Cherry Shrimp
If you have a particularly nice LFS, then chances are you’ve seen a few colored dwarf shrimp and wondered what species they were. They’re almost invariably some variation of Nercardinia davidi.
Cherry Shrimp and their variations are extremely easy to keep. Plop in a heater and run it from 76-84°F, make sure the water is relatively clean, and you’re good to go. They do best in planted tanks. They’re also really tasty, at least if you ask your fish, so make sure that tank mates can’t fit them in their mouths.
I recommend always keeping plants with these shrimp, even a clump of Java Moss wrapped around a rock will help keep them happy and safe.
The various color morphs are all equally easy to take care of. I’ve seen claims that some of the high-end morphs, such as the Jade Green and Fire Red, are harder to take care of, but I’ve never seen evidence of it in my tanks.
Cherry Shrimp and their morphs sell well, especially since they’re so hardy and come in a wide variety. I’ve recommended them in the past to people who want to try a line-breeding project but don’t care for live-bearers.
They’re my personal favorite introduction to the world of shrimp-keeping. It’s possible to spend years just playing with Neocardensis davidi without needing to branch out.
3. Amano Shrimp (Caridina Multidentata)
- Diet: Herbivorous Scavenger
- Size: 2″
- Experience Level Required: Intermediate
- Synonyms: Japanese Shrimp, Yamato Shrimp, Algae Eating Shrimp, Caridina japonica
Amano Shrimp were popularized by their namesake, the aquarist Takashi Amano. They’re not extremely pretty, but they’re an invertebrate that’s well-known by virtually every planted tank keeper. They’re relatively hardy (especially when captive-bred), but their bland look belies their real use in aquaria.
As the synonyms above hint… Amano shrimp are prolific algae eaters. They’re considered “hard-working” detritus cleaners for the most part. They eat nearly all the waste in a tank, snatch up algae, and generally keeping things tidy, they’ve earned a great reputation.
For those who prefer planted setups with minimal visual interference, they’re much more desirable than Cherry Shrimp. They’re clear with dark spots, making them blend into plants and substrate seamlessly.
There’s one other thing that some people love, and some hate: Amanos are very hard to breed. Or, it should be said, Caridina multidentata is hard to breed. In the wild, their larvae spend the first few weeks of their life in salty waters off the shore before coming back home. Replicating those conditions is very difficult in home aquaria.
Some report them breeding prolifically. If that’s the case, it’s most likely a look-alike species. There are hundreds of shrimp in the genus Cardina, and some look quite similar. Your results may vary depending on the source of your shrimp, but true Amano shrimp are an invaluable invertebrate.
Breeding was once considered impossible, but there’s video proof available if you’re interested in a real challenge.
4. Bee Shrimp (Cardina Cantonensis)
- Diet: Herbivorous Scavenger
- Size: ¾” to 1 ½”
- Experience Level Required: Advanced
- Synonyms: Crystal Red Shrimp, Bumble Bee Shrimp, Blue Bolt Shrimp
Like Neocardina davidi, Bee Shrimp come in a wide variety of different colors and patterns. Unlike them, however, they have strict requirements in their water. As a general rule, the water should have the following qualities:
- pH: 5.8-7.0
- Temperature: 62-76°F
- gH: 4-6
- kH: 0-4
- Total Dissolved Solids(TDS): 100-200
You’ll notice one thing immediately about the above: TDS and hardness measurements are rarely a requirement in freshwater aquaria. They’re usually suggestions to help keep optimal health. The end result of this is that the majority of Bee Shrimp variations die-off in hard water or with the wrong level of Total Dissolved Solids.
Keeping Bee Shrimp is more about maintaining water quality than anything else. If you can manage it, then you’re good to go, and they’re not much more difficult to keep than Cherries. A bit of food, some plants, and water maintenance are all you need.
I don’t personally like keeping them due to how easy it is for them to die. Cherries are much more forgiving and, in my opinion, much more attractive overall shrimp. Most people working with Bee Shrimp focus on breeding higher “grades.” While the term is sometimes used with Neocardina shrimp, it’s much rarer.
Bee Shrimp are more expensive by a good margin. They’re rather beautiful. I especially like the Blue Bolt morph, and a good show of skill for an aquarist. That said, they’re not beginner-friendly in the slightest, and they aren’t a cheap hobby to get into. If you’re willing to do the work, it can be rewarding, however.
Many people claim they just drop them in dechlorinated tap water, and from there, they’re fine. I suspect that in those cases, the local water is close to their requirements. Areas with hard, alkaline water will need additives and an RO filter to create a good environment for these temperamental shrimp.
5. Bamboo Shrimp (Aytopsis sp.)
- Diet: Omnivorous
- Size: 2 ½” to 3 ½”
- Experience Level Required: Intermediate
- Synonyms: Flower Shrimp, Fan Shrimp, Singapore Shrimp, Wood Shrimp
Bamboo Shrimps are one of the largest species you’ll find in the aquarium trade. There are two species in the genus, but figuring out which species you have, which is best left up to taxonomists. They vary only slightly.
They’re large, peaceful inverts, but their tank requires special attention paid to how they feed. Bamboo Shrimp eat from the water column. They use fan-like appendages to capture microcrustaceans and other microscopic bits of food.
They can shuffle through the substrate to find food, but it’s not ideal. Indeed, if your Bamboo Shrimp is doing this… it’s probably starving. Before you consider them, you should take a look into culturing greenwater as a food source. Otherwise, you’re doing them a large disservice.
Because of this, you’ll need to make sure that you have considerable flow in their aquarium. I also prefer to leave them with some space directly in front of the filter output, where they can catch anything that made it through the filter.
They can handle varying water conditions within a reasonable amount. They’re very inoffensive. Some people even keep them with their Bee Shrimp with no problems. They’re also cheap when you can find them.
While they’re not everyone’s bag, they’re a very unique creature and one which most aquarists will welcome into their tanks. The tank for a Bamboo Shrimp needs to be set up with them in mind. If you do so, however, they’re one of the most singularly odd critters you can put in a freshwater aquarium, and that alone makes them worth the investment.
That said, many people prefer not to keep them. They’re almost all wild-caught, breeding them in captivity is almost impossible, and many starve to death due to a lack of understanding. Think carefully about whether you’re willing to learn enough to make your shrimp thrive.
Aquarium Suggestions for Freshwater Shrimp
While species have some slightly different requirements in the water column. That said, freshwater shrimp species also have some things in common. You don’t need to design a tank around your shrimp if you’re going to use Ghost Shrimp or Cherries, but keeping them in mind definitely helps.
- Densely Planted Tanks: Shrimp need to be secure. Planted tanks provide them with more security. They also allow them to hide from fish and other vertebrates, especially in their fry phase.
- Moderate Current: Shrimp don’t mind a bit of current, indeed most come from places where the water is a bit quick, so don’t worry about too much movement in the water. Too little is far more disconcerting for them.
- Hiding Places: Dense plants are good, but hardscape hiding places are also a good idea. Try to find pieces of driftwood and rocks that match with your idea of a great tank and decorate those with plants as well.
- Feed Specialty Foods: Don’t make the same mistake some people do and think your shrimp will live on algae alone. I drop the occasional algae wafer in. The small ones used for Corydoras catfish and Otos do fine, and some people also add small amounts of blanched vegetables. Just remove them after an hour or so if it’s not all gone.
- Minimal Nitrates: In all cases, nitrates should be <15ppm. Ideally, less than 5-10ppm. Anything higher will cause problems for most shrimp, and fish in general.
All freshwater shrimp will do much better with the above considerations in place.
One final warning: copper is extremely toxic for all shrimp. Very small amounts of it in the water column will kill an entire population overnight. Check your local water quality and make sure it’s negligible. 1ppm can kill all of your invertebrates.
That also means you need to treat fish for parasites in a separate tank or find a way to remove all of your shrimp.
Consider Your Tankmates Carefully
There are two schools of thought on shrimp and their companions.
Some people, especially those raising Bee Shrimp, view each shrimp as an investment and are worried about them getting eaten constantly. For them, the ideal tank mates are pretty much other shrimp and some small varieties of fish.
Some I’d recommend if you’re worried about your shrimp:
- Neon Tetra
- Endler’s Livebearer
- Otoinculous Catfish
- Corydoras Catfish
Only the latter two are actually safe with shrimp fry. If you’re keeping Red Crystal Shrimp, or any other Bee Shrimp morph, in a tank, I’d recommend only keeping those two. Others exist, but do a lot of research because many seemingly friendly fish will eat shrimp at the first opportunity.
Read more: 8 Great Tank Mates for Cherry Shrimp
I’m a bit laxer on my shrimp tank mates than that. While I respect their lives, I also recognize their role as part of an ecosystem. I often keep them with fish that will eat them given the chance.
Betta, for example, can eat Cherry Shrimp before they grow to their full size. If you keep your fish well-fed, however, they’ll “hunt” the shrimp on occasion but very rarely catch them. By pure coincidence, this is also a great way to encourage natural behavior and health in Betta as well.
In some cases, I’ve had Cherries(or their various morphs) achieve a net gain, even in tanks with predatory fish.
If you’re willing to risk them, then you can keep them with any schooling fish under 3″. Avoid ambush predators like Pictus Catfish. Aggressive fish, such as Dwarf Cichlids or Tiger Barbs, should also be avoided.
In essence, if it’s 3″ or under and would be at home in a peaceful community tank, then you’ll be in good hands.
Bamboo shrimp can hold their own with slightly larger fish, but I’d recommend they remain the largest inhabitant of the tank once grown.
Just so you know what’s possible with Neocardina davidi and Cardina cantonese, I’ve gathered some photos of the morphs available.
This is just a sampling. There are dozens of variations out there and different grades. None of these names are really formal, but instead what breeders choose to call them. Neocardina davidi is a truly spectacular organism, and the various color morphs prove it.
Cardina cantonensis also has a wide variety of colors. They have less time in the aquarium trade, however, and even the red morph is a relatively recent development. In the future, the line is sure to both adapt better to aquaria and produce some stunning colors.
Making the Shrimp Life Easy
Freshwater shrimp are the basis of a great planted tank, in my opinion. They’re also cool critters in their own right, and exploring their life cycle is a worthy experiment. Whether they’re easy to care for, like Cherry Reds, or require careful maintenance of water chemistry like Bee Shrimp… they’re all worthy of a place in your tanks.