Freshwater shrimp are growing in popularity as additions to aquariums, the wide variety of available colors combined with their unique personalities making them great options for both shrimp-only and peaceful community tanks. They also benefit aquarists by helping with the cleaning of excess debris and waste from the tank: a tiny invertebrate clean-up crew.
While shrimp require some additional considerations in their care, feeding them is relatively simple. Freshwater shrimp kept by aquarists are omnivores, leaving a wide range of options open for keeping these small invertebrates happy. However, keeping your shrimp healthy and at their best colors involves more than just sprinkling some random foods into the tank.
Aquarium Shrimp Food: Feeding Styles
Freshwater shrimp have three primary feeding styles:
- Substrate scrapers
- Filter feeders
- Meat eaters
Substrate scrapers actively scour the aquarium interior in search of food. Their claws are adapted for picking through the substrate, plants, and decorations for algae, uneaten food, microorganisms, and biofilm. Examples of shrimp found in this group include the red cherry, crystal red, and Amano shrimp.
Filter feeders also have specially-adapted claws, but they use them to strain fine particles out of the water column. You’ll usually see these shrimp positioned near the outflow of your filter, sieving plankton, micro-algae, and tiny uneaten particles of food from the water. Popular members in this group include the bamboo, vampire, and Caribbean dwarf filter shrimp.
Meat eaters are not as common in the aquarium trade, but they’re pretty easy to identify: they’re larger and have pronounced, elongated claws for pulling off pieces of meat. These shrimp are still omnivores, but they require supplementation with meat products, and they won’t hesitate to snatch up a small fish. Common members of this group include the pearl shrimp, and red and fuzzy claw macros.
Aquarium Shrimp Food: Feeding Frequency
Freshwater shrimp are beautiful additions to community tanks, and they provide a beneficial service by helping remove algae, leftover food, and waste from the aquarium (fish actually don’t utilize the nutrients in their food well, so a lot of those nutrients remain intact in their waste). This “profession” of cleaning ensures that food should always be available to your shrimp, and you don’t want to overbalance the system by accidentally overfeeding.
Feeding frequency is determined by the stocking of your aquarium, as well as the behavior of your shrimp. Shrimp that are content will remain around the plants and substrate, combing for algae and biofilm. If your shrimp are swimming around and appear restless, then there isn’t enough algae available for them, and you need to increase your supplemental feeding to keep them happy. In contrast, if the algae is building up and your shrimp look like they’re on vacation, cut back on the supplemental feeding to kick them back into grazing mode.
Underfeeding your shrimp is always the better option, and they really only need their supplemental feedings a couple of times a week. If excess food is allowed to accumulate in the tank, it’ll break down and ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate will rise which could spell the end for your shrimp and pose a risk to your fish. Remember, your shrimp are small, and their stomachs are only capable of holding so much.
If you add some food and they show no interest within 5 minutes, remove it – they’re clearly full. All uneaten food should be removed from the aquarium after an hour.
Aquarium Shrimp Food: Biofilm
Biofilm is shrimps’ favorite food source, and the easiest one to provide since it requires almost no work on your part! Biofilm is a complex matrix composed of bacteria, algae, and other microorganisms that grows on the surface of everything in an aquatic environment. If you have a properly cycled aquarium, you have biofilm available. It’s a critical resource – more important than algae. Freshwater shrimp have strong bristles on their mandibles and claws that are designed specifically for scraping biofilm growth from aquarium surfaces.
Besides keeping your tank cycling, you can encourage biofilm through the simple introduction of brown leaves. In the wild, shrimp often scavenge through fallen leaf litter, so adding some dried leaves mimics their natural environment while also providing additional surfaces for biofilm growth. The following leaves are particularly suited for shrimp habitats:
- Indian almond
You can collect your own leaves to ensure they haven’t been sprayed with any chemicals or pesticides (bad choice for invertebrates and fish alike). While it’s tempting to choose leaves that are yellow or red, those leaves still contain a high proportion of sugar which you don’t want in your tank – stick to the crunchy brown leaves. To make sure the leaves sink to the bottom, boil them for a couple of minutes, otherwise they could end up floating on the surface for several days.
Wood and pinecones will also provide surfaces for biofilm to build, and both can receive the same boiling treatment. The shrimp won’t eat them, but they’ll appreciate the nooks and crannies to explore for their favorite treat. Avoid any plants with leaves that contain sap, such as pines or eucalyptus. They have a nice look to them, but the oils produced can harm or kill your shrimp.
Aquarium Shrimp Food: Algae
Freshwater shrimp fall into the class of algae-eaters that aquarists find beneficial, especially if they’ve had to wage a battle with this aquarium pest. Shrimp love to dine on algae, and they’ll eat both green and brown algae. Owing to their small size, you can often find your shrimp holding on to the side of the tank while they graze on the algae growing on the glass.
Along with biofilm, algae should make up the bulk of your shrimps’ diet. This is another reason that shrimp shouldn’t be added to a brand new tank – there would be nothing for them to eat, and you could easily lose a lot of your new invertebrates to starvation. A mature aquarium with plenty of algae available is your best bet for success.
Much like biofilm, algae will grow on available surfaces provided there is sufficient light and resources available. Plants outcompete algae for nutrients, but shrimp can feed off plant debris as an alternative. If you really hate the sight of green fuzz in your aquarium, choosing to stock your tank with shrimp-friendly plants might be a better option.
Aquarium Shrimp Food: Vegetables
Much like the rest of us, freshwater shrimp benefit from healthy portions of plant matter in their diets. Yup, that means making sure your colorful little invertebrates get their vegetables a couple of times a week in addition to their biofilm and algae. Luckily, shrimp really like vegetables; some of their particular favorites are:
- Green peas
- Sweet potato
Now, before you dump your dinner portion into the tank, there’s some prep work involved in feeding your shrimp their daily greens. All vegetables with peels (sweet potato, zucchini, cucumber) should be peeled. Neither your shrimp nor your fish will eat the peel, and this removes the possibility of any pesticides (pesticides and invertebrates are always a bad combination). All of this can be done ahead of time, and it’s okay to freeze your work to have on hand.
- Cut up your chosen veggies into approximately 1/2 inch pieces (broccoli doesn’t need to be cut – just break it into small pieces).
- Put them into a pot of boiling water for about 2 minutes.
- Remove the pieces and immediately put them into a bath of ice. This stops the cooking process.
The blanching process helps to break down the vegetables just enough to make them easy for your shrimp to eat without harming the nutrients or minerals. The boiling will also help the pieces sink to the bottom of the tank where your shrimp will be able to enjoy them. Veggies have a bonus in that you can leave them in the tank overnight without worrying about creating excessive waste.
Vegetables provide a small amount of protein, as well as valuable nutrients for your shrimp. If you have red varieties of shrimp, watch how many carrots you give, as the beta-carotene can start to affect their color.
Aquarium Shrimp Food: Commercial Diets
Freshwater shrimp aren’t picky when it comes to their diets, so providing them with a supplementary commercial diet should be a breeze. After all, there are hundreds of options available – everything from Tropical Color Flakes to Shrimp Pellets. In theory, one food should be just as good as another, right? If you want to keep your shrimp – and your aquarium – as healthy as possible, the answer is a little more complicated.
Shrimp can develop preferences for certain kinds of food, and you may need to experiment to find which commercial brand they like best. How do you know? Shrimp get “excited” and swarm around foods they like, brushing off or ignoring foods they have no interest in.
As omnivores, shrimp require a balance of plants and protein to grow and breed. They obtain some protein from the bacteria in the biofilm, but their supplemental foods are the best option for introducing quality protein to their diet. You just want to make sure that the diet you’re offering is an ideal choice and safe – this means reading the labels carefully. This also means thinking rationally about the protein source the food utilizes. Ideally, you should aim to mimic the diet your shrimp would have in the wild. Shrimp feed on insects, dead fish, and other shrimp, which means diets formulated with brine shrimp or mosquito larva are good choices.
A lot of commercial diets contain fillers – items used to help bind ingredients together that may or may not provide any nutritional benefit. Yeast is one common filler: it’s inexpensive, but it has no nutritional benefit for your shrimp. Algae powder is another filler that isn’t bad on the nutritional scale, but if more than 50% of the diet contains the powder, your shrimp aren’t benefiting; after all, you already have algae in the tank. Fish and shrimp meals are less expensive, but there are a lot of questions regarding the sustainability of such products.
Commercial fish diets are suitable for most tropical species, but many of them contain copper sulfate as an additive. Copper is toxic to shrimp, even in small amounts, so introducing these diets into your aquarium – even if you aren’t intending to feed them to your shrimp – is gambling with your invertebrates’ lives. Always read the labels carefully, down to the last line.
Aquarium Shrimp Food: Supplements
Freshwater shrimp are invertebrates, and they shed their exoskeleton on a regular basis in order to grow. This requires nutrients and energy, making a balanced diet crucial to avoid molting problems. Another way to keep your shrimp in top condition is to provide quality supplements specially designed for their molting needs.
Mineral foods are available that are designed specifically for shrimp molting. Shrimp King makes a mineral stick you can drop into the tank once or twice a week to help provide the proper building blocks for fresh exoskeletons.
Another option is to visit the bird section of the pet store (yes, the bird section). There you can purchase dried cuttlefish bones – pure calcium carbonate. Birds use the bones to sharpen their beaks, but you can use them to provide calcium for your shrimp. Simply break off a piece of the bone and anchor it into the tank (within a few days it’ll stay submerged on its own). Your shrimp will visit the bone to graze on the soft calcium, and the bone will slowly dissolve calcium into the water (this is why you should only use a small piece, and you’ll want to monitor your water quality). The calcium serves as a building block for molting.
Aquarium Shrimp Food: Feeding Methods
Now that your freshwater shrimp have their meal plans, what’s the best way to deliver their food to them? Algae and biofilm are always available, but what about their supplemental feedings? Commercial diets, in particular, run a big risk of becoming a problem because we know excess food can lead to a build-up of waste. Your shrimp aren’t going to rush to the top of the tank to compete with the fish, so you need to bring their food to them.
There are specially-designed glass food trays available that sit on the bottom of your tank. They are available in different sizes, and they have a rim that prevents the food from spilling and sinking into the substrate. Your shrimp learn where to go for their meals, and you can always move the tray around the aquarium. The food can either be placed on the tray using tweezers or a feeding tube (available in a 30cm or 40cm size). The feeding tube has a funnel on one end that you use to introduce the food. You can then siphon any uneaten food from the tray, keeping your tank clean.
The tray method works great for commercial diets that are prone to dissolve or break apart, keeping them contained so they don’t disperse. If you have bottom-feeding fish, they learn the location of the tray, as well, and you may not need to remove any leftovers.
Freshwater shrimp present some challenges in their care, but providing a balanced diet isn’t on that list. These omnivores are content with a base meal plan of biofilm and algae, helping you with the cleanliness of your aquarium. Supplementation with blanched vegetables and a healthy, shrimp-friendly commercial diet will keep them in peak health and condition, ensuring their colors and antics will enliven your tank for years to come.