Pistol Shrimp Care: A Complete Guide 

Alison Page

Alison Page

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pistol shrimp care

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If you have a marine aquarium and you’re looking for a unique and impressive critter to add to your collection, the pistol shrimp could be perfect for you.

Pistol shrimp are also known as snapping shrimp because of the loud sound the creature’s snapping claw makes. The claw generates a tremendous force that can easily knock down small fish and other invertebrates and makes one of the loudest sounds in the marine world.

Most species of pistol shrimp are compatible with non-aggressive fish species and corals, and these quirky creatures are also regarded as reef-safe.

So, are pistol shrimp suitable for beginners? Read this guide to find out!

Pistol Shrimp Info 
Common NamesPistol shrimp, snapping shrimp
Scientific NameAlpheidae family
Minimum Tank Size30 gallons
Beginner-friendlyYes
BreedingChallenging
LifespanUp to 4 years
DietOmnivore but primarily carnivorous and detritus feeders
Reef-safeYes
AggressiveNo
Water temperature75° to 82°F
pH levelpH 6.5 to 7.5
Water hardness8 to 12 dKH
Salinity1.025

Origins

Pistol shrimp are members of the Alpheidae family of caridean shrimp. All members of this shrimp family are easily recognizable by their asymmetrical claws. The larger claw produces a very loud snapping sound, hence the common names.

There are over 600 species of Alpheidae, grouped into around 38 genera, Alpheus and Synalpheus being the largest with over 250 and 100 species, respectively.

Natural Habitat

Pistol shrimp are saltwater crustaceans that inhabit coral reefs, submerged seagrass flats, oyster reefs, and muddy estuaries.

Most genera of these shrimp are found in marine temperate and tropical waters. However, the Potamalpheops genus lives in freshwater caves and the Betaeus genus is found in cold seas.

Appearance

pistol shrimp care

Most species of pistol shrimp are small with a body size of 1 to 2 inches long.

The shrimp have a normal claw and a specialized, much larger snapping claw. Sometimes, the snapping claw measures half of the shrimp’s body length. 

The snapping claw can be on either the shrimp’s right or left arm. Interestingly, the claw can reverse during the shrimp’s lifetime. If the snapping claw is lost due to injury, the smaller one molts and modifies into a new snapping claw. However, the lost snapping claw regenerates into a smaller one.

The snapping claw has two distinct parts. First, the section called the hammer can draw backward to 90 degrees and is often released by the shrimp to snap rapidly into the second fixed section of their claw, resulting in an immensely powerful shockwave.

Colors

Pistol shrimp come in a range of colors, including red, brown, blue, green, white, and combinations of these shades.

Lifespan

When kept in captivity, snapping shrimp generally live for 3 to 4 years.

Behavior

Pistol shrimp like to burrow into the substrate, creating the perfect hiding place where they spend most of their time.

These shrimp are shy animals and can be problematic if kept with very small fish and inverts. Pistol shrimp are nocturnal, spending most of the daylight hours in their burrow or some dimly-lit place in your tank. When active, the shrimp are scavengers, picking scraps of food from around your aquarium and cleaning their sandy burrows.

Snapping shrimp are very territorial, and they can become aggressive toward other aquarium residents. That said, the degree of belligerence varies between species. For example, pistol shrimp from the Caribbean are typically more aggressive than other species, attacking any other tank mate that gets too close and making a loud snapping sound with their claw. 

In addition, the shrimp can hunt prey by using its antennae, immobilizing prey with its snapping claw. The claw is also used for defense and as a communication tool with other shrimp. The speed of water jets that the snaps create is used to relay information, together with chemical signals.

Do Pistol Shrimp Live In Groups?

One genus of snapping shrimp, Synalpheus, lives in massive colonies of hundreds of individuals that live inside sponges. These vast pistol shrimp colonies are ruled by a queen shrimp and a reproductive male who are cared for by worker shrimp and soldiers in a similar way to bees.

However, most species of pistol shrimp are relatively solitary, territorial animals that don’t demonstrate social behaviors among their fellow shrimp. If you have a large tank, you can keep a pair of shrimps together if you’d like to attempt breeding. 

Symbiotic Behavior In Shrimp

Pistol shrimp sometimes form a symbiotic relationship with the aptly-named shrimp gobies or Amblyeleotris.

In these relationships, the shrimp digs an elaborate burrow for both creatures to share. The goby’s job is to use its superior vision to keep watch for predators while the shrimp places one of its antennae on top of the goby so that the two housemates remain in sync.

Once a predator is spotted, the goby flicks its tail to warn the shrimp, and they both retreat to safety in the burrow.

What Do Pistol Shrimp Eat?

In the wild, pistol shrimps mainly eat a carnivore diet, feeding on small inverts. The shrimps also feed on detritus, macroalgae, and organic matter that they scavenge from the substrate. If the adult shrimp has a symbiotic, beneficial relationship with a goby, the goby sometimes brings food to the burrow for the shrimp.

In captivity, you can feed your shrimp with foods such as brine shrimp, mussel, scallop, mysis shrimp, and other small meaty food items. Fish flake food and sinking pellets can also make up part of your shrimp’s diet.

Although shrimp will scavenge for leftover food that they find on the substrate, to ensure that your shrimp gets enough to eat, you can try placing food on the sand bed close to the burrow’s entrance.

It’s also a good idea to include extra supplements in your shrimp’s diet to ensure a healthy skeleton and shell after the animal molts.

Are Pistol Shrimp Reef-Safe?

Snapping shrimp are reef-safe because they don’t eat corals. That being said, there are a few potential issues to be aware of if you’re considering taking on one of these inverts.

These shrimp are known to take frags and relocate them in shallow waters, primarily for use as building materials for their burrows. So, the main problem you’ll have in a reef setting is that the shrimp might pick coral frags off the rocks in your tank.

You might also find your shrimp’s habit of constantly excavating sand rather annoying, as your corals can become buried in the substrate. However, you can get around this problem by ensuring that your corals are placed at least 8 inches above the sand substrate.

Pistol Shrimp Care Guide

Now that you know more about these fascinating inverts, here’s a guide explaining how to care for them.

Tank Size

The recommended tank size for the pistol shrimp is a minimum of 30 gallons, although larger tanks are preferred.

Although these shrimp are small, they like to roam around the tank and keep well away from other tank mates in a reef aquarium setup. Small tanks can lead to higher aggression levels in pistol shrimp, so always give these critters plenty of space.

Water Parameters

As is the case with most creatures from marine waters, pistol shrimp do best when kept in stable water conditions.

Pistol shrimp are a tropical species that need a water temperature of between 75° and 82°F.

The water pH should be in the range of 6.5 to 7.5, with a water hardness between 8 and 12 dKH. Salinity should be 1.024 to 1.026, with 1.025 being the ideal.

The tank should be well-filtered with a gentle water flow to create a comfortable environment for the shrimp. Also, be sure to avoid using copper-based medications and water treatments, as copper is highly dangerous to invertebrates.

Lighting

Since pistol shrimp are mostly nocturnal, the lighting levels in the tank are not important to them. So, you can choose lighting that suits your other tank residents and corals.

Tank Decoration

Pistol shrimp prefer a sandy substrate so that they can create a deep burrow that provides a haven for themselves and the host goby. For that reason, aquarium sand is the best choice, and it should be at least 2 inches deep, ideally more.

Small pieces of rubble and chunks of rock are also needed so that the shrimp can build a reinforced tunnel wall within the burrow. You also need to provide plenty of rubble pieces to provide the shrimp with safety and security.

Sometimes, the burrowing activities of the shrimp can create sand storms in the tank, undermining the rocks and corals in the setup, causing them to collapse into the sand. To avoid this, ensure that the rockwork is very secure so that it can withstand the constant remodeling that the shrimp tend to do. 

Tankmates 

The obvious companion for a pistol shrimp in a reef tank setting might appear to be a shrimp goby. 

However, compatibility varies between species. Some biologists suggest that a porcelain crab (Pachycheles rudis) can be a third partner in goby and shrimp alliances. However, the red caribbean variety doesn’t pair with gobies, preferring to live with the Bartholomea annulata anemone. As mentioned previously, the Pocillopora pistol shrimp lives within colonies of corals. 

Other tank mates that can be kept with pistol shrimp include small, non-aggressive fish, sponges, and corals.

Be sure to select a species of host animal that suits the species of shrimp you’re intending to keep.

Tank Mates To Avoid

Be careful not to introduce tank mates that might view your pistol shrimp as a food source. For example, avoid species such as puffers, triggers, lionfish, groupers, and hawkfish. Bottom-dwelling fish species should also be avoided since they can be attacked if venturing too close to a pistol shrimp burrow.

Mantis shrimp should also be avoided. Mantis shrimp are large predators, potentially reaching up to 15 inches in length. In a confrontation, mantis shrimp can inflict a lot of physical damage in a fight against pistol shrimp. 

In addition, it’s not recommended to keep other fellow shrimp species, crabs, and snails with pistol shrimp. Pistol shrimp are defensive when confronted by a perceived threat, so these other inverts are generally best avoided.

Can You Breed Pistol Shrimp In Saltwater Aquariums?

Pistol shrimp are monogamous, forming a mating pair. In the lead-up to molting and breeding, the male shrimp guards the female. The female’s reproductive cycle is geared to her molt, and mating takes place immediately after the female shrimp has molted.

This enables the male shrimp to take advantage of more mating opportunities with other females.

Depending on the species of pistol shrimp, up to several thousand eggs per brood can be produced. Once fertilized, the eggs can take up to 28 days to hatch. Once hatched, the larvae go through several molts.

Unfortunately, breeding pistol shrimp in a home tank is difficult and usually unsuccessful, largely due to a lack of space. Also, the shrimp eggs and larvae are vulnerable to predation by other tank residents.  

Availability

Pistol shrimp are a popular aquarium species. For that reason, you can usually buy pistol shrimp of various species in good marine aquarium pet stores and online for around $20 to $40 for a single specimen, depending on the rarity of the variety and the size. 

Some stores offer pairs of goby and shrimp at a slightly higher price, but the price may be worth it since the shrimp and goby are likely to settle into your aquarium much easier in each other’s company.

What To Look For When Buying Pistol Shrimp

When you’re shopping for pistol shrimp, look for specimens that are in good condition. Avoid shrimp that have missing body parts, such as antennae, legs, and claws. The shrimp should be lively and curious to explore their new environment, so avoid any that are lethargic.

Pistol shrimp species that are good to start with are candy cane or randall’s pistol shrimp (Alpheus randalli) and they pair well with yasha gobies.

Tiger pistol shrimp are also a great option for beginners because they are reef-safe and easy to identify thanks to their tan, brown, and cream body stripes. Green pistol shrimp and bullseye pistol shrimp are also good options, although these species are less likely to pair with shrimp gobies. 

One pistol shrimp species to avoid is the red caribbean pistol shrimp because these feisty critters can be more aggressive toward their tank mates. 

Are Pistol Shrimp Dangerous To Humans?

So, are pistol shrimps dangerous to humans especially with their intimidating snapping claw? 

Pistol shrimp don’t generally attack their owners. However, if you do get hit while cleaning out your tank, a large snapping shrimp hit can sting quite a bit. 

However, because most of these shrimp are very small, if you did get snapped the impact would most likely feel like a strong rubber band snapping against your skin. The snap certainly wouldn’t open your skin or break a bone.

That being said, we recommend that you do not touch your pistol shrimp unless you have to in an emergency.

Can My Pistol Shrimp Damage My Tank?

No! It’s highly unlikely that a pistol shrimp would break your aquarium glass or damage any of your decorations. The snap of the creature’s claw is simply not powerful enough to do that.

However, this shrimp species is a burrower so their industrious excavations can inflict damage on your hardscapes due to subsidence.

Final Thoughts 

Pistol shrimp are a fascinating species of invertebrate that can make interesting additions to saltwater aquariums and reef tank setups, especially when paired with a goby fish. 

These reef-safe critters are very attractive and have big personalities to match their snapping claws! Pistol shrimp have a life expectancy of up to four years in captivity and are fairly healthy, as long as you provide them with the correct water parameters and tank conditions. 

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