Skunk Cleaner Shrimp: Our Guide to Keeping Healthy Shrimp

Charlie Morton

Charlie Morton

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Cleaner Shrimp

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Skunk cleaner shrimp (aka. Pacific cleaner shrimp) have been becoming ever-more popular in the aquarium trade, largely due to their fascinating cleaning habits.

Not only do these colorful invertebrates help clean the aquarium of algae and leftover food, but they also offer a special cleaning service to your fish, freeing them from harmful bacteria and parasites that could otherwise become serious health problems.

This remarkable symbiotic relationship has led some people to offer the skunk cleaner shrimp yet another common name: the ‘Doctor Shrimp’.

Now, let’s find out how to best care for them.

Species Overview

Cleaner Shrimp Info
Scientific NameLysmata amboinensis
Common NameSkunk Cleaner Shrimp
Other Common NamesPacific Cleaner Shrimp, Red Skunk Cleaner Shrimp, White-striped Cleaner Shrimp, White Banded Cleaner Shrimp, Skunk Shrimp, Ambon Cleaner Shrimp, Doctor Shrimp
Minimum Tank Size20 gallons (~90 liters)
Ease of KeepingEasy for a marine species
BreedingVery difficult
Size (without whiskers)2 – 2.4 inches (5 – 6 cm)
Optimal Temperature25 – 28°C (~75°F – 82°F)
Water SalinitySG = 1.023 – 1.026
Optimal PH8.1 – 8.4 (7.5 – 9)
Optimal KH8 – 12
NitrateLess than 20 ppm
DietOmnivorous including algae and parasites
TemperamentMostly peaceful
Life spanUp to 3 years

Skunk Cleaner Shrimp vs Other Types of Cleaner Shrimp

Several species of shrimp may be referred to as ‘cleaner shrimp’, but in this article, I’ll be using the term to refer specifically to the skunk cleaner shrimp (Lysmata amboinensis). This species is the most popular and probably the best all-around cleaner shrimp available.

The blood shrimp (L. debelius), and peppermint shrimp (L. wurdemanni), are two other common cleaner shrimp species but are often considered inferior to the skunk cleaner shrimp.

See the subsection later on keeping skunk cleaner shrimp with other types of shrimp!

Origin and Background

The skunk cleaner shrimp (Lysmata amboinensis) is sometimes referred to as ‘The Pacific cleaner shrimp’ because they’re so often found in the Pacific Ocean. In actual fact, these shrimp are incredibly widespread and also occupy parts of the Indian Ocean, and even The Red Sea in Africa.

Cleaner shrimp are well-loved by aquarists and marine life enthusiasts for the fascinating symbiotic relationship they form with many fish species. They live up to their name by the way they latch onto fish and clean them from parasites, bacteria, and damaged tissues.

As well as cleaning fish, skunk cleaner shrimp also eat algae and detritus in the aquarium, as well as free-swimming parasites, parasite eggs, and larvae.

Appearance

Another appealing asset of the cleaner shrimp is their beautiful, elegant appearance.

Mature specimens are mostly pale in color with wide scarlet red bands, edged with narrow white bands running the length of their body (earning them yet another common name, the ‘white-banded cleaner shrimp’).

They also have six incredibly long white antennae or ‘whiskers’ that they use to sense their surrounding environment.

Skunk cleaner shrimp can grow up to 2.5 inches long from nose to tail but are at least double this length when their antennae are included!

Sexual Dimorphism

Adult skunk cleaner shrimp are simultaneous hermaphrodites, meaning they have both male and female reproductive organs.

All adults, therefore, can carry eggs as well as fertilize them in a partner.

Skunk Cleaner Shrimp Care Guide

Ease of Care

While you might hear me refer to cleaner shrimp as being easy to care for, please remember that this is only within the context of a saltwater aquarium setup.

Reef aquariums are so much more challenging than freshwater fishkeeping that I’d firmly recommend you don’t attempt it until you have several years of successful freshwater aquarium experience under your belt!

While skunk cleaner shrimp are a suitable species for your first reef aquarium, pay close attention to my suggestions on feeding, water quality, and especially on keeping more than one pair in a single tank.

Tank Size

Skunk cleaner shrimp are fairly territorial and also need plenty of room to move around in.

In small tanks of 10 or 15 gallons, groups of cleaner shrimp have been known to become aggressive toward one another, often resulting in fatalities.

Therefore a 20-gallon tank is the smallest recommended size for a pair of cleaner shrimp, with larger tanks advised for larger numbers.

Tank Environment

Of the three types of marine tanks, skunk cleaner shrimp can be kept in reef tanks, and live rock tanks.

While there have been reports that cleaner shrimps will attack corals, these rumors are unfounded and may have simply originated from aquarists witnessing their cleaner shrimps cleaning the coral from algae or detritus.

If they’re very hungry, cleaner shrimp can deprive coral of their food, but this can easily be overcome by ensuring plentiful – but not excessive – food for all fish and invertebrates (see feeding section).

An essential requirement in skunk cleaner shrimp tanks is plenty of hiding places for them to take refuge. Additionally, at least one tall rock for them to perch on and advertise their cleaning services is advised for functionality and your viewing pleasure!

Water Temperature

The optimum temperature range for skunk cleaner shrimp is usually stated as 75-82°F. In their native range, however, they’re also found in slightly cooler seas. In their habitat around Coffs Harbor in Australia for example, the water temperature can dip to 65°F in winter.

It’s important to note that Skunk Cleaner Shrimp are sensitive to sudden changes in water temperature, so acclimatizing them properly in a new tank and keeping water temperature stable is essential to avoid them suffering thermal shock.

Keep them in a tank with a reliable aquarium heater and check the tank’s thermometer daily to ensure it’s running smoothly.

Water Parameters

Saltwater shrimp tend to be more sensitive to saline concentration than saltwater fish. Skunk cleaner shrimp need a salt concentration to be kept stable at a specific gravity of 1.023–1.026 SG, so be sure to check the water regularly with a reliable saline refractometer to ensure salt concentrations are at the right level.

Salinity Refractometer for Marine Aquariums
  • Measure salt water or salinity of water, ideal for aquariums and marine monitoring.
  • Measures on 2 scales, Specific Gravity (D 20/20) and parts per thousand.
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A dKH of 8-12, and a pH level between 8.1 and 8.4, should be ideal, but it’s also important that you keep your water clean and of sufficient quality for these shrimp to thrive.

Filtration

Hang-on-back filters and internal power filters are good options for smaller reef tanks, but for aquariums larger than 50 gallons, you could also consider a canister filter.

Canister filters are more expensive than the other types of filters but are also more efficient, and less noisy.

Feeding

In addition to the algae and parasites that they clean from the tank and fish, skunk cleaner shrimp require additional feeding and will accept almost any type of fish food including dried foods, live foods, frozen foods, and also vegetable matter such as nori flakes.

The challenging part about feeding them is that they may be shy to come to the water’s surface to eat food with your fish. While some aquarists report their cleaner shrimp eating flake foods from the surface, others will wait on the bottom for their food where it may never reach them.

To overcome this, feed them with sinking foods such as sinking pellets and meaty foods, and watch carefully to ensure they’re getting their fill. If your fish are snatching up the food before your shrimp can get to it, try feeding them after the tank lights go out. Once it’s dark, your fish are less likely to be actively feeding.

Another issue with feeding cleaner shrimp is their reputation for stealing food from corals and anemones. Once again, you can try feeding with sinking foods after dark so that enough food reaches the bottom of the tank, or you could try target-feeding corals and anemones with a syringe.

Compatible Tank Mates

Because skunk cleaner shrimp have a symbiotic relationship with fish, their behavior towards them is entirely benevolent. I’m yet to hear any reports of skunk cleaner shrimp ever harming any adult fish, although, like most tank mates, they’d likely eat fish fry, eggs, and invertebrate larvae.

Some predatory fish, such as lionfish and hawkfish may pose a threat to cleaner shrimp, but this might only make your cleaner shrimp more eager to advertise their cleaning services and avoid being eaten!

In the wild, cleaner shrimp can even be seen cleaning the teeth of large predators like moray eels! Things are less predictable in an aquarium, though, so caution is advised when considering aggressive fish, and larger invertebrates such as crabs.

Keeping Skunk Cleaner Shrimp in a Group With Other Types of Shrimp

Cleaner Shrimp

Skunk cleaner shrimp are not always entirely peaceful towards other shrimp and each other. This territorial species likes to stake out their own hiding places and won’t take kindly to rival cleaner shrimp intruding on their space.

In tanks of 20-gallon or smaller, it’s not recommended to keep more than one pair, since the weaker shrimps in the group will often get bullied or even killed, usually after molting.

Health and Disease

Skunk Cleaner Shrimp are generally quite robust but do need steady water conditions and good general care to remain in good health.

As with all marine invertebrates, take great care if the tank has previously been treated with copper-based medications since copper is highly toxic to them.

Various reports have indicated that cleaner shrimp are quite sensitive to high nitrate levels, so it’s important to regularly test your water, and perform enough water changes to keep nitrates below 20 ppm.

Some aquarists have had problems with black gills on their saltwater shrimp, which can be caused by fungal infections, bacterial infections, or even issues such as sediment accumulation. Individuals suffering from these symptoms may become very lethargic and die. Shrimp farms have sometimes treated these issues with antibiotics, but there is no reliable cure.

As usual, prevention is better than cure. Most shrimp and fish diseases will only strike when your tank members are stressed, neglected, or kept in poor water conditions. Good tank maintenance and frequent observation are your best friends when it comes to keeping your shrimp and fish healthy.

Breeding Skunk Cleaner Shrimp

As mentioned earlier, skunk cleaner shrimp are simultaneous hermaphrodites, meaning that all adults have male and female reproductive organs.

While they’ll readily pair off and mate together, raising baby skunk cleaner shrimp is extremely difficult. The larvae are slow to develop and suffer a very high mortality rate in captivity, meaning they’ve probably only been bred successfully a few times in captivity.

They were probably first bred in captivity by Mark Wunsch of Bangor University in 1996 for his doctoral thesis. Out of more than 2,000 larvae, only one shrimp made it to maturity, after 142 days!

If you’re an advanced aquarist and eager to attempt the near-impossible, I’d suggest heading over to the Aquarium Breeder Website, where you can find details on the most up-to-date practices for breeding cleaner shrimp.

Lifespan

When provided with the optimum conditions, skunk cleaner shrimp can live for up to 3 years.

For them to reach their maximum lifespan, their diet, water quality, and quality of care must be of the highest order.

Tank Maintenance

Some top tips for keeping your skunk cleaner shrimp in tip-top condition!

  • Feed Skunk Cleaner Shrimp a diverse, healthy diet that includes regular additions of live or frozen foods. Make sure they get enough food but also avoid overfeeding.
  • Vacuum your substrate and make partial water changes of 10-15% every week, or 20-25% every two weeks, with treated water of matching temperature and salinity.
  • Get yourself a reliable heater and thermometer. Make daily checks to ensure the temperature is within the ideal range for all of your fish.
  • Observe your fish and invertebrates closely every day to ensure they are in good health and interacting peacefully with each other.
  • Test your aquarium’s water at least once a month, or any time your fish or shrimp seem unwell.

Buying Guide

Since skunk cleaner shrimp are so difficult to breed in captivity, pet store stocks will have come from the sea.

Because of their popularity, some people are worried that overfishing cleaner shrimp for the aquarium trade could endanger their wild populations. So far, there’s been no scientific evidence to support or refute this concern.

Skunk cleaner shrimp typically sell for $20-40 each, online or in pet stores in 2023.

Final Thoughts

Skunk cleaner shrimp are an intriguing and increasingly popular invertebrate for saltwater aquariums. Not only are they fascinating to watch, but they can also improve your fish’s health by cleaning them from harmful bacteria and parasites.

While skunk cleaner shrimp are relatively easy to keep for marine species, please remember that any saltwater fish or invertebrate is much more challenging to keep than their freshwater equivalents.

This species is a peaceful shrimp towards fish but can be territorial towards one another and other shrimp species. Be sure to give them plenty of space, especially if you’re planning on keeping more than one pair.

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