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Beyond the scales and tails: Invertebrates for freshwater tanks. By Mike Tuccinardi

Posted by Mike Tuccinardi on

When we set up a home aquarium, it’s almost always intended as a habitat for any number of colorful tropical fish. There’s good reason that “aquarium” and “fish tank” are synonymous. But since the earliest days of the aquarium hobby, fish keepers have been drawn to other animals – besides fish – that inhabit the tropical freshwater lakes and rivers of the world. Today, the aquarium hobbyist has more options than ever before when it comes to non-fish options for their home aquariums, many of which will live peacefully alongside the more popular varieties of community fish. Here’s a look at some of the most popular and tips on properly caring for them:


In the last decade, freshwater shrimp have taken the aquarium hobby by storm. From the common Red Cherry shrimps to the ever-growing number of beautifully marked hybrids, freshwater shrimp are one of the hottest new “trends” in the freshwater aquarium world. There are even international competitions with dozens of carefully chosen categories where breeders compete for prizes! The reason shrimp are so popular is not only due to their color, but because they are generally peaceful, hardy and undemanding in an aquarium. Many, like the Red Cherry Shrimp (a selectively bred strain of Neocaridina heterapoda) and the many other color forms of this species, will adapt to nearly any aquarium conditions provided water quality is good. Others, like the Crystal and Bee Shrimps, are a bit more demanding, preferring soft water. Although not nearly as colorful as the selectively bred strains of shrimp, the Amano or Algae Eating Shrimp (Caridina multidentata) has been popular in the hobby for many years as it is an excellent algae eater – especially in aquariums with live plants. With all shrimp, tankmates should be chosen carefully; many fish will see smaller shrimps as a potential meal. The best tankmates for shrimp are equally tiny fish like guppies, rasboras, and smaller tetras.


Snails have been kept in aquariums since the beginnings of the hobby, and if you’ve ever kept live plants, it’s likely you’ve seen small snails appear in your tank and reproduce to the point of becoming a pest. Not all snails are undesirable, however, and in recent years some new and fascinating varieties have made their way into the hobby. A personal favorite of mine are the so-called Rabbit Snails (genus Tylomelania) hailing from the freshwater lakes and streams of Indonesia. These snails have pointed, conical shells and their bodies come in a variety of colors, from solid yellow to black with gold spangles. Another colorful and interesting group is the Nerite snails of the genus Neritina -most of which are also great algae eaters. These come in many different color patterns and shapes, but all generally do well in an aquarium. Nerites move to brackish or marine environments to breed, and so will not reproduce in a freshwater tank. And if pest snails are overpopulating your home tank, look no further than the Assassin Snail (Clea helena) from Southeast Asia. These small snails are adapted to feed on other snails, and will quickly decimate populations of pest snails in an aquarium.



There are hundreds of species of freshwater crabs, found in almost every freshwater habitat on earth – from the Rift Lakes to the Amazon. Unfortunately, many of these are equally at home both under the water and above it, so they don’t always make the best aquarium inhabitants. In fact, the two most commonly available species, Red Claw Crabs (sp) and Gold Claw Fiddler Crab (sp) both prefer to spend a significant amount of their time above the water and really require a specialized setup to thrive. Another group of crabs which have recently become popular are the Vampire Crabs of the genus Geosesarma. All of these species are actually terrestrial, and will do quite well in a humid terrarium. In terms of true aquatic crabs, one of the most interesting to enter the hobby is the Thai Micro Spider Crab (species), which originates in shallow water habitat like rice paddies in Southeast Asia. As the name implies, these crabs are quite tiny, but a group of them makes for an interesting display in a nano aquarium. Just like with shrimp, it’s important to choose tankmates wisely so they don’t make a snack out of your new crabs.


Crayfish, sometimes called freshwater “lobsters” have been popular in the hobby for decades, but most species grow large and can become a danger to any fish kept with them. Despite this, there are many colorful varieties that can warrant a tank dedicated specifically to them. For those looking for a good addition to their community aquarium, several species of dwarf crayfish are now available, including the beautiful blue and orange forms of the Mexican Dwarf Crayfish (Cambarellus patzcuarensis). These peaceful, small growing crustaceans will do well in any smaller aquariums with peaceful tankmates. At the opposite extreme are the Southeast Asian and Australian crayfish of the genus Cherax  (“Yabbies” as they’re sometimes known). These giants grow so large that they are often consumed for food in their native range; although many are beautifully marked most species will require a very large, dedicated aquarium.

Whether its crustaceans, snails, or any other aquatic critters, it’s always important to research a species’ specific needs before adding them to an aquarium. But with the diversity of unique invertebrates available in the freshwater hobby today, it’s never been easier to expand beyond fish and add a touch of the unusual to your home aquarium.

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