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What Do Freshwater Shrimp Eat In A Tank And In The Wild?

Freshwater shrimp make a colorful and interesting addition to a tropical tank. Some species of shrimp graze on algae, too, making these tiny critters essential members of your aquarium cleanup crew.

To keep your shrimp healthy and thriving, you need to offer them a diet that mimics what they eat in nature.

So, what do shrimps eat in the wild? What do freshwater shrimps eat in captivity? And how do shrimp eat their food?

Read this guide to find out!

What Do Freshwater Shrimp Eat?

Most species of freshwater shrimp are omnivorous scavengers, eating pretty much any kind of organic matter they come across in their environment. However, shrimp generally prefer to graze on algae, infusoria, decomposing plant and vegetable matter, and animal protein.

Specialist Feeders

Although there are very few exclusively carnivorous shrimp or herbivores, many species are specialists, preferring one kind of food over everything else in their diet. 

If your shrimp are to do well in captivity, it’s crucial that you give them enough of the correct food to eat. So, be sure to research the species you’re thinking of buying so that you can provide them with what they need to thrive.

Here are just a few examples of specialist feeders:

Cleaner Shrimp

Cleaner shrimps in reef aquarium

Saltwater cleaner shrimp are unique among shrimp in their feeding habits.

Unlike other shrimps that prefer to stay close to the shelter so that they have an escape route from predators, the cleaner shrimp picks a conspicuous spot where it can signal to passing fish by waving the antennae on its head. When a fish stops, the enterprising little shrimp climbs aboard its customer and starts picking off dead skin, loose scales, and parasites. 

These plucky shrimp have even been known to climb right inside the open mouths of predators such as eels to eat the scraps of food trapped between the creature’s huge teeth! 

Curiously, very few cleaner shrimp are devoured while in search of a meal.

Red Cherry and Amano Shrimp

Both Red Cherry and Amano shrimp eat mainly certain species of algae and biofilm that grows on surfaces within the tank. Unfortunately, the shrimp don’t generally eat brown algae, so you’ll need to manually remove that from your aquarium.

If you keep either of these shrimp species, be sure to include driftwood, live plants, and rocks in your tank, as these tend to produce a good amount of biofilm for the shrimp.

Both these shrimp species will also clean up scraps of fish food that drift down onto your plants and the substrate.

Bamboo and Vampire Shrimp

Bamboo and Vampire shrimp are oddities in the shrimp world in that they are filter feeders.

Rather than eating algae and biofilm, these two shrimp species use a pair of specialized fan-like appendages to filter floating food particles that drift past in the current.

These shrimp pick a good fishing spot, typically up high on a rock, piece of driftwood, or a plant, that’s close to your filter outflow pipe. Here, the shrimp can catch a meal. When a particularly productive place is found, you’ll often see gangs of Bamboo shrimp tussling and scrambling over each other to secure the prime spot.

Vampire shrimp are somewhat less undignified but more antisocial, preferring to fish for their food at night away from the crowds!

Sulawesi Shrimp Species and Bee Shrimp

Sulawesi Shrimp (Caridina dennerli)

Some shrimps, such as Sulawesi species and Bee shrimp, need a specialty diet that gives them all the micronutrients that these delicate creatures need for healthy shell growth and overall vitality. 

Ask for advice in your local fish store on what brands of commercial shrimp food to use for these sensitive types. 

Are Shrimp Cannibals? 

Yes! Sometimes, shrimp do eat their own kind. 

However, before we accuse the shrimp of having cannibalistic tendencies, there are usually extenuating circumstances behind such acts.

Cannibalism usually only happens if a shrimp has molted, leaving it soft and defenseless for a day or so until the new protective carapace hardens. So, a larger shrimp might eat a smaller relative if the hapless cousin has just molted and there’s no other food to be had in the environment.

Pro Tip 

Basically, if the shrimp have plenty of food to eat and their diet is varied, it’s pretty unlikely that the shrimp will predate on each other.

Do Shrimp Kill and Eat Small Fish?

No! Although some freshwater shrimp will make a meal of dead fish and other shrimp that they come across in the tank, they are simply not equipped with the speed and weaponry needed to catch and kill a small fish.

That said, there are some species of large freshwater shrimp and prawns that have big claws and heavy bodies, which could, in theory, catch and kill an unwary fish. Generally, these creatures belong to the Asian macrobrachium genus that can grow to reach between four to eight inches long.

Needless to say, you should only keep some of these bad boys in an aquarium with large semi-aggressive fish that can defend themselves if necessary.

What Do Young Shrimp Eat?

When baby shrimp hatch, they enter a larval stage before morphing into tiny shrimplets. During the larval stage, the tiny creatures float on the water surface. 

Since the larvae can’t swim properly and their ability to get around is very limited, they eat mostly plankton and algae that drifts close to them in the water. Farm and home-raised baby shrimp generally survive exclusively on floating algae and infusoria during the larval stage.

Do Shrimp Prey On Other Creatures?

Some shrimp species actively prey on other creatures in their immediate environment.

However, shrimp don’t hunt for prey like some fish species do. Instead, the shrimp stir up the silt, sand, or mud substrate while they’re foraging, which disturbs aquatic worms, tiny crustaceans, and other creatures. 

Shrimp don’t use vision to locate food. Instead, the creatures use the sensitive antenna located on their heads to detect or “smell” food items in the environment around them.

What’s The Best Food For Freshwater Shrimp?

Before you add shrimp to your tank, you need to know what’s the best food to give them.

Algae

Most freshwater shrimp species should have algae as the main part of their diet. 

So, you can’t add shrimp to a brand-new aquarium that’s super-clean because there won’t be enough of the right food for the shrimp, and they may not survive for long. 

Always add your shrimp to a mature tank that contains plenty of algae and biofilm, and they will keep busy, grazing 24/7! 

As long as you can see the shrimp picking at algae all around the tank, you know they’re happy and there’s plenty for them to eat. However, if the shrimp are constantly restless and appear to be doing more swimming than eating, that means there’s not enough algae or other food for them, and you need to supplement the shrimps’ diet. 

Fresh Veggies

Shrimp love fresh veggies! Veg such as zucchini, carrot, spinach, cucumber, broccoli, and sweet potato are all good choices. 

Peel the veg and blanch it in boiling water before you put it into the tank. You can leave a piece of veg in the aquarium overnight and retrieve what’s not been eaten in the morning.

Leaf Litter

In the freshwater shrimp’s wild environment, fallen leaves often litter the substrate. Infusoria grows on the leaves, providing a delicious crop of food for shrimp and fish fry.

I don’t recommend that you collect fallen leaves from the environment, as there’s a good chance you’ll introduce parasites or chemicals into your tank. Instead, you can buy dried Indian Almond leaves (Catappa leaves) from your local fish store, which are specially harvested and processed for safe use in aquariums.

Beautiful foliage of terminalia catappa trees.

These broad, dried leaves provide plenty of surface area for infusoria and biofilm to colonize, and the leaves offer shelter for the shrimp, too. Dried Indian Almond leaves also leech flavonoids and tannins into the water, which offer valuable anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial properties that benefit your fish.

Cuttlebone

Although you’ll find dried cuttlebone in your local pet store in the bird section, you can also use it to provide an essential source of nutrition for your shrimp!

Cuttlebone is composed almost entirely of calcium carbonate. Calcium is an essential substance for shrimp to promote healthy, strong shell growth. Effectively, grazing on the cuttlebone provides the perfect dietary calcium supplement for the shrimp

Who knew?

Found, natural Cuttlefish bone aka cuttlebone, the internal shell of cephalopod. On sand. Fed to pet birds, budgies etc.

Simply pop a small piece of cuttlebone in your fish tank, wedging it under a rock to keep the cuttlebone from floating. Although the cuttlebone will very slowly dissolve, the calcium that’s leached into the water shouldn’t adversely affect the pH.

Commercial Foods

Commercially prepared shrimp foods are not necessarily the best choice for your shrimp.

That’s mostly because they contain high volumes of animal protein, purely because these products are cheaper than using spirulina or algae meal.

If you decide to offer your shrimp commercially-produced food, go for a high-quality plant-based formula.

However, if you have fish in your setup, the shrimp will happily gobble up any leftover fish flakes and fragments of pellets. That means you probably don’t need to worry too much about using commercially prepared shrimp food unless you have shrimp species that demand a specialized diet.

Fresh And Frozen Meaty Food

You can include fresh and frozen meaty foods such as brine shrimp, bloodworms, and daphnia in your shrimps’ diet.

If you have fish in your aquarium as well as shrimp, you could try feeding live blackworms and tubifex if you can get some from a reliable supplier. You’ll notice that shrimp focus on one worm, while the others escape. That’s not a problem if you have fish to snatch up any worms that the shrimp don’t get to. However, very tiny shrimp might struggle to cope with a particularly fat worm.

How Do Shrimp Eat?

As previously mentioned, some species of shrimp are filter feeders, using modified fan-like appendages to catch fragments of food that drift past in the water. Most other shrimp have modified mouthparts that serve a dual purpose.

It was once thought that the shrimp’s semi-rigid, strong mandible is used solely for breaking down pieces of food before the shrimp ingests it. However, a study carried out in 2013 by Geiselbrecht & Melzer shows that the shrimp’s mandible contains a variety of sensory cells that enable the creature to “smell” food in order to locate it.

Once the shrimp has grabbed a piece of food, it uses its foremost appendages to pass the morsel to the mandibles for onward transmission to the digestive tract.

In species such as Ghost shrimp, the body is transparent, and you can actually watch the food passing through the shrimp’s body!

What Do Marine Shrimp Eat?

Periclimenes pedersoni (Pederson Cleaner Shrimp)
Image Source : wikimedia.org

Although the focus of this article is on freshwater shrimp species, I want to quickly touch on ocean-dwelling shrimp. There are many beautiful species of saltwater shrimp that you might want to add to your collection if you have a marine or reef tank.

Like their freshwater relatives, the marine shrimp is primarily a scavenger. However, you do still need to supplement that with extra protein to keep your shrimp healthy and well-fed.

Some species of marine shrimp are omnivorous and will eat mysis shrimp, brine shrimp, frozen meaty foods, pellets, and tablet foods, as well as general detritus that they find in the tank. Reef-dwelling coral shrimp eat lots of different things, including zooplankton, certain arthropods, worms, tiny crustaceans, parasites, and general detritus.

Focus image of Brine Shrimp

Many marine shrimp are highly sensitive specialists that require a very particular diet to survive in captivity, so always do your research before you buy these critters.

In Conclusion

I hope you enjoyed this guide to feeding freshwater shrimp. If you did, please share!

Shrimp are one of nature’s scavengers, spending much of their time grazing on certain species of algae or picking scraps of leftover fish food and general detritus from around the tank. In the wild, shrimps eat pretty much whatever they can find, including dead fish, other shrimp, worms, decaying plant matter, and algae. Replicate that diet in the aquarium, and you will have happy shrimp!

What species of shrimp do you keep, and what’s their favorite food? Share with us in the comments box below!

Alison Page has been an avid fish keeper for over 35 years and has owned many different species of freshwater tropical fish including bettas. Currently Alison has two large freshwater tanks. The first tank has two huge fancy goldfish who are almost ten years old and still looking as good as ever. In the other, she has a happy community of tiger barbs, green tiger barbs, corydoras catfish, platys, and mollies.

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