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Staghorn Algae (Causes And Treatment)

Last Updated October 31, 2020
staghorn algae in underwater

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Unfortunately, algae in your aquarium is an occupational hazard for everyone in the hobby. In fact, algae aren’t completely bad for your tank. These organisms convert waste products into oxygen through the process of photosynthesis, helping to keep your water clean. However, algae are a nuisance, covering your decorations, suffocating living plants, and obscuring the glass.

In this article, we take a look at staghorn algae and show you how you can get rid of it.

What are Staghorn algae?

Staghorn algae (Compsopogon sp.) are a species of red algae that form long strands of coarse gray-green growths, sometimes up to six inches or more in length, which wave around in the current. Interestingly, if you take a piece of Staghorn algae and soak it in alcohol, it will turn red.

The colonies of Staghorn algae are soft, slippery, and very fast-growing, clinging tenaciously and proving extremely difficult to remove by hand. Green Staghorn algae look very similar to the popular aquarium plant, Java moss, and newbies to the hobby often confuse the two. Staghorn algae are extremely unsightly in the aquarium, growing along the edges of plant leaves and taking hold on virtually any surface. In looks, these algae appear very similar to Black Beard algae.

Are algae bad news for your aquarium?

Although they can look unsightly, algae are not actually especially detrimental to your fish tank. Like all aquatic plants, algae use organic nutrients, such as fish waste, as a kind of fertilizer, and they convert CO2 to oxygen, which is actually pretty good news for your tank.

fish hiding in staghorn algae

However, unlike many species of aquatic plants that are sensitive to the amount of light and nutrients they receive, algae are much less complex lifeforms that can thrive in far worse conditions than plants. So, algae are able to utilize different wavebands of light and thrive on organic compounds that are unusable for plants.

 Also, some fish species and many invertebrates eat algae, and the organisms form a major part of some animals’ diets.

A small number of algae can make a very natural-looking, attractive feature in an aquarium too.

On the downside, most hobbyists don’t appreciate alga’salgae’s growth in their tank as it can suffocate delicate living plants and make the tank look untidy.

What causes Staghorn algae?

Staghorn algae generally grow in planted tanks and develop from poor water circulation and or low levels of CO2. Also, in new tanks that haven’t cycled properly, high levels of ammonia often trigger Staghorn algae’s growthalgae’s growth.

Nutrient and light imbalance

All forms of algae growth, including Staghorn, are triggered by an imbalance of lighting and nutrients in the water.

But what does that mean?

Well, basically, live plants require the exact amount of nutrients and light to grow and thrive. However, if you provide too much light and not enough nutrition, algae take advantage of the light available and multiply rapidly, taking over your whole tank. Unfortunately, creating a perfectly balanced tank is almost impossible. How so? Well, the better the balance, the quicker your plants grow so that you have to prune them, changing the amount of lighting and nutrients that the plants need and upsetting the balance all over again.

How to get rid of Staghorn algae

As there will always be some form of imbalance between the lighting and nutrient levels in your fish tank, your goal is to keep your tank as close to perfectly balanced as possible. Also, you need to add an algae-eating crew to help control algae outbreaks.

That two-pronged approach can be very effective in controlling algae.

Use plant power!

Although adding more plants in the middle of an outbreak of Staghorn algae is not the best idea, filling your tank with living plants is the best way to keep algae at bay.

That’s because plants are more efficient at utilizing available resources than algae and bacteria. So, healthy plant growth is an excellent sump for ammonia, nitrites, nitrates, and potassium, all of which are major contributors to major algae outbreaks. In fact, plants are so efficient at using those nutrients that many hobbyists discover that they need to add more. When choosing plants to add to your aquarium, pick quick growing species to maximize nutrient usage and starve-out algae.

Add a clean-up crew

Not all algae eaters will chomp through red algae species, including Staghorn algae. However, there are a few options that can be considered as a clean-up crew.

Siamese algae eater (Crossocheilus siamensis)

The fabled Siamese algae eater is one of the most voracious clean-up crew members and will eat Staghorn algae with relish, cleaning the tough, fibrous algae from plants, decorations, and surfaces throughout the tank.

Otocinclus catfish

Otocinnclus catfish feed almost frenetically on any algae they can find, which is great news for you if you have Staghorn and other different types of algae in your tank. These manic little guys rasp algae off rocks and other surfaces throughout the tank, especially wood, and leaves.

If you decide to take on some of these little fish, you will need to supplement their diet unless there are unlimited supplies of algae in your tank. Sadly, it’s not uncommon for Otocinclus to starve to death once they’ve exhausted the supply of algae in their aquarium.

Amano shrimp (Caridina japonica)

Amano shrimp were first made popular in the hobby by their namesake, Takashi Amano. These cute little creatures munch on algae almost constantly, but they are only small, and you do need a whole bunch of them to make a dent in a serious Staghorn infestation.

Aquarium snails

Freshwater aquarium snails do have something of a bad rap, but they are extremely important in the tank’s ecosystem, eating detritus and algae too. Yes, snails do often eat plants, but they generally munch on parts of the plant that are dying, removing the decaying matter before it has a chance to pollute the water column. Avoid species such as large pond ssnails or Apple snails in planted tanks, as they will do a fair amount of damage to your plants.

Reduce light

As previously mentioned, reducing the amount of light in your tank can be very effective at stunting the growth of algae.

Aquatic plants can manage quite well with eight to ten hours of light every day. More than that, and algae may begin to grow. So, if you don’t have an aquarium lighting unit with a timer, invest in a simple timer from your local hardware store and use that to limit the amount of light that your tank gets each day.

Bring out the big guns!

There are some products that you can use to get rid of Staghorn algae if it becomes a serious problem in your tank.

The addition of liquid carbon to the water will turn the algae white or pink after a few days of treatment and they will die off. The dead algae will quickly be eaten by shrimp and other inhabitants in your tank.

If that doesn’t work, or you have a small, local Staghorn algae infestation, you can use what’s called the fogging method, which involves applying liquid carbon directly to the algae.

Final thoughts

Staghorn algae is a nuisance in the aquarium. It looks unsightly and robs live plants of valuable nutrients.

You can take steps to control the algae by reducing the amount of light that the tank receives each day, treating the water with carbon, adding more living plants, and introducing a squad of algae eaters to make a meal of the nuisance organisms.

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