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An Overview of the Cleanup Crew Invertebrates in Marine Aquariums

Donya Quick Version 1.1, last updated 14-Aug-2011

Donya Quick 2011

Cover image: Tectus fenestratus

Table of Contents Introduction......................................................................................................................... 3 Stocking Numbers and Rules of Thumb......................................................................... 4 10 Steps to a Happy and Healthy CUC (and Tank in General) ...................................... 5 First-Wave CUC ................................................................................................................. 6 Turbinid Snails................................................................................................................ 7 Cerithiid and Nassariid Snails....................................................................................... 10 Hermit Crabs................................................................................................................. 12 Mithracid True Crabs.................................................................................................... 14 CUC Requiring and Established Aquarium...................................................................... 15 True Conches ................................................................................................................ 16 Cowries ......................................................................................................................... 17 Sea Urchins ................................................................................................................... 19 Brittle/Serpent Stars ...................................................................................................... 23 Animals Requiring Specialized or Expert Care ................................................................ 24 Large Hermit Crabs....................................................................................................... 24 Nerites and Periwinkles ................................................................................................ 26 Sea Hares ...................................................................................................................... 28 Sea Stars........................................................................................................................ 29 Sea Cucumbers.............................................................................................................. 31 References and Recommended Reading........................................................................... 32

The Cleanup Crew, or CUC for short, can be viewed as a biological solution to common aspects of marine tank maintenance such as the following: 1. Control of film-forming and/or encrusting algaes. These are the sort that are mainly a nuisance on the tank walls and matter far less if they form on the rocks. When on the glass, not all of these algaes are easy to clean away by hand, especially in acrylic tanks that risk scratching when a scraper is applied. 2. Control of soft, filamentous algaes commonly called hair algae. While clumps of these algaes sometimes occur on the tank walls, they are easy to remove by hand but not so for the rock work where they are most commonly found. 3. Keeping the porous rockwork from silting up with debris and uneaten foods. In this document I have attempted to give a survey of the various animals often employed in the marine CUC and marketed as such in the aquarium trade. It is important to note that this document is also not a list of appropriate CUC animals from which the reader can pick and choose. Just because an animal is commonly marketed as a good CUC animal does not mean that it should be used as such. Indeed, not all of the animals I cover here are good choices for every aquarium and some probably shouldnt be considered CUC animals in the first place! Broadly speaking, the most fool-proof stocking for most community or simple reef tanks will be some combination of medium to large Turbinid snails, Nassariid and/or Cerithiid snails, and small Clibanarius hermit crabs. The Turbinid snails will work against film-like, soft filamentous, and some encrusting algaes while the hermit crabs will pick the rocks clean of any uneaten food. Cerithiid snails will eat algaes and other detritus that collects in the sand bed. Nassariid snails and hermit crabs take care of uneaten meaty foods, and hermit crabs will pick over the live rock to keep it clean. While some in the hobby prefer to leave crustaceans out of the CUC for fear of compatibility problems with snails and other invertebrates, hermit crabs and some of the more peaceful true crabs can also occupy a unique roll in the CUC. These animals are omnivores with rock-cleaning behaviors that result in a combination of algae removal (although they may simply remove it from the rock without consuming it) and cleanup of uneaten scraps of fish food that is often not accomplished by the use of non-Crustacean invertebrates alone. The selection of small hermit crab species and medium to large snails can easily avoid the types of compatibility issues that lead to hermit crabs and other crustaceans having a bad reputation. This issue is addressed in more detail later.

Stocking Numbers and Rules of Thumb

The next natural question after hearing about types of animals that makeup a CUC is to ask how many? for each animal involved. Unfortunately, there is no simple answer here except to say that the common rules of thumb regarding animals-per-gallon form and pre-packaged CUC stocks are all too often doomed to suffer large amounts of attrition. Consider the most common guideline: one CUC animal per gallon. Some hobbyists want an all-snail CUC. Should a 20-gallon tank really have 20 Turbo snails for its CUC? I wont say never, but any such tank where the animals are actually filling CUC roles (vs. being target-fed, ornamental additions) would be an algae-overgrown nightmare. Animal-per-gallon methods of stocking are far more convenient for bulk CUC sales than for the animals or the hobbyists involved. In the vast majority of cases they are a quick rout to animal deaths due to two problems: fragile animals being added to an instable tank and overstocking leading to starvation and/or attrition. Sadly, those who follow that type of stocking often come away with the belief that some degree of CUC die-off is normal and even unavoidable. In fact, there is no need for this kind of event in any tank. The number of each type of animal will vary depending on much more than the tank size, and is in fact mainly tied to food availability. Pre-packaged CUC deals may seem appealing from a financial standpoint, but they cannot take individual tank variations into account. One also has to bear in mind that these animals are going into a tank with far less food than will be present in the future as it matures. Because of this, it is always much better to initially under-stock and then add a few more CUC animals each week until the tank reaches a steady, clean state. Instead of making an upfront guess at the tanks CUC stocking, seeing the impact that only a handful of animals can have on the tank is the safest way for new hobbyists to estimate how many more CUC animals should go into the tank. Similarly, adding different types of animals in sequence (such as some hermit crabs one week and some snails the next week) rather than all at once will give the new hobbyist an idea of which niches still need to be filled. There is also no reason that the CUC has to be fully populated before fish and other animals can be added. A small initial CUC that is built upon as fish are added will avoid causing starvation for omnivores and carnivores that may depend on uneaten meaty fish foods. This type of delayed/iterative CUC stocking will also avoid overstocking in response to temporary algal blooms and other events only associated with new tanks.

10 Steps to a Happy and Healthy CUC (and Tank in General)

1. Stock slowly. For example, in small tanks that are 20 gallons and under, one animal at a time is not necessarily too slowly! Watch for at least a few days to a week before adding more animals to observe the impact of the existing animals on their environment. 2. Do not add CUC animals unless there is an obvious role/niche for them. For example, do not add obligate grazers to a tank with no algae. 3. Never buy an animal unless you know about its care. If you know nothing about an animal, leave the store, read for a few days, and then reconsider. Its better to risk having to wait for another shipment to arrive than to end up killing an animal out of ignorance regarding its needs. 4. Avoid common names. Come to grips with scientific names and how to identify invertebrates. There is no such thing as a generic animal if you cant tell them apart at a reasonable level (at least genus, species being preferable), you are setting yourself up for disaster. 5. Do not buy animals that have a poor captive record. Unless you are an expert specifically trying to break new ground in the hobby and study the captive care of a particular animal, there is no reason to believe you will have more success with that animal than the last person who tried. 6. Never buy an animal unless you are prepared to provide it with sufficient food. If sufficient food in the tank runs out, be prepared to target feed the animal and make sure the tank can handle this! See the section on sea hares for an example of why rent-a-CUC is a bad idea that is potentially harmful to the animals involved. 7. Never try to substitute CUC for routine tank maintenance. 8. A basic array of test kits is mandatory, even for hardy CUC animals! 9. Include books in your tank budget. At a minimum, buy a recent, general guide to marine aquaria. If you want to be serious about a specific type of animal, buy a book that covers the animal. Although the number of reliable resources on the Internet is growing, they are still not yet a substitute for a personal library on paper. For CUC-related books, see the section on references and recommended reading.

10. Keep a tank journal. Write down every change you make to the tank. A clear record of changes in stocking, water changes, test results, and other details is invaluable when a problem inevitably arises. Date every entry and maintain chronological order. A pad of paper and a waterproof pen kept near the tank itself is the easiest method.

First-Wave CUC
The CUC is usually added as soon as the tank appears to have become stable enough. What stable enough usually means is that ammonia and nitrite are undetectable, nitrate is low (at or below 10ppm) and the pH is 8.0-8.4. A few days of stability, however, does not mean that the tank is fully stable, and some bumps along the way can usually be expected. For this reason, the first CUC animals into the tank need to be as hardy as possible. These first-wave CUC animals serve as a starting point for building up the tanks ecology. Other animals that are beneficial CUC additions but are also fragile must wait a while until stability is more certain. The notion of adding animals to a potentially instable tank raises the question why add them now? It would be ideal if the entire tank could become stable before adding any animals at all. A fishless cycle is possible, so why not an animal-less stabilization period? The short answer is that you often wont see problems show up until you start adding animals. You can keep a tank cycled and growing for as long as you want using the odd piece of prawn or scallop meat. In fact, this is how live rock curing tubs usually work when intended to exist over long periods of time. However, until you add animals that start eating the algae and affecting the populations of other organisms in the tank, you might not see any instability. Additionally, organisms like diatoms, cyanobacteria, and undesirable hair algaes may take over the tank if it is lit. While diatoms may die-off in an animal-less tank, control of the other two is most easily accomplished with animals. Once the animals go in, the ecosystem will change, and the tank will enter a sorting out period where populations of other organisms may fluctuate. Since it is unlikely that serious parameter swings will occur in an empty tank that has just completed its cycle from a non-living source of ammonia, there is no real reason not to begin adding animals at this point to start adding to the biodiversity. Some aquarists may opt to wait for some algal growth before adding CUC, but carnivores and omnivores can usually be added straight away since they can be fed from the same sorts of meaty foods that are used to fuel fishless cycles. Not all tanks will show parameter swings, but in those that do in their early stages, it is important to monitor pH, ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate. If pH shows instability, KH is worth checking as well. Fluctuations in these parameters are usually small compared to those that take place during the cycle itself and often serve as indicators to adjust aspects of the setup (such as flow rate/direction and surface agitation) and maintenance regime. Calcium is worth monitoring sporadically in gastropod-heavy tanks, those containing stony corals, and those with unusual pH and/or KH readings.

Checking phosphates is worthwhile if substantial algal growth persists after the addition of snails. The first major change to take place is that instead of feeding the biological filtration through decay alone, the food will be processed by other animals first (e.g. hermit crabs and scavenging snails), and nutrient sinks like algae will become food for grazing invertebrates. This change in nutrient flow can result in some instability as the biological filtration and populations of other small animals adapt to the changes. Additional, although smaller ecosystem shifts can be expected as fish and other ornamental animals are added. Some of these changes can be minimized by building up ornamental and CUC animals in alternating stages. The end goal is a balance where regular feedings for the fish and other ornamental animals in the tank also provide sufficient nutrients for the CUC in the form of leftover meaty food and algal growth.

Turbinid Snails
Common names of Turbinid snails are in a rather messy state in the trade. The four most common names for Turbinid snails in the trade are: Turbo, Trochus, Astraea, and Margarita. The first three are actual genus names and the last is probably derived from the genus Margarites. While all four of these names are from genus names, they are not always correctly applied. The name Turbo snail is frequently misapplied to many other Turbinid snails that are not in the Turbo genus. Astraea and Trochoid species are often mistakenly called Turbo, which can lead to a lot of confusion for new aquarists. Similarly, the term Trochus snail is often applied to Trochoid snails not in the Trochus genus (such as Tectus fenestratus), although the species involved are usually similar enough in behavior and environmental needs that the misidentification is not a problem. Turbinid snails that are good choices for a first CUC are true Turbo genus snails, such as Turbo fluctuosus, often called the Mexican Turbo snail, and those commonly sold as Trochus snails. Turbo fluctuosus can live for quite a number of years in the aquarium even when purchased at a reasonable size, provided they are properly fed and not subjected to extraordinarily high temperatures. The typical tropical range of 72-78F is acceptable, with tolerance for short periods of higher temperatures (although temperatures above 80F should be avoided as much as possible). As already mentioned, not all Trochus snails are actually in the Trochus genus, but many fall into the Trochidae family and its immediate taxonomic parent, Trochoidea. Tectus fenestratus (see cover image) is often sold under the common name Trochus and Trochus histrio is commonly sold as a banded Trochus. These snails have similar captive care requirements to Turbo species and are usually as hardy, although Tectus fenestratus is often collected when it is near its average maximum size, often meaning that the animals will slow into old age within a year or two of purchase. Individuals purchased smaller will, of course, have a longer life in the aquarium. Many snails in these two categories, the Turbo genus and the Trochoidea superfamily, are generally quite hardy and resistant to predation. They also thrive on a varied diet, meaning that they will both remove multiple varieties of algae from the aquarium as well as not risk starving if one type of algae disappears. However, these

snails are also active and require a significant amount of algal growth to sustain them. If the only algae remaining in the aquarium consists of hard/encrusting varieties that the snails are unable to eat easily, supplementary feeding will be required to prevent starvation. The so-called zebra Turbo snails that periodically appear in the trade are rarely true Turbo species, but rather Cittarium pica (another Trochoid). While these snails can be very long-lived and grow to impressive sizes, they are also strangely finicky at times. Cittarium pica is generally not a good choice for the first wave of CUC animals to enter a new tank, particularly so for new aquarists, although it may be a reasonable addition later on in the tanks maturation process. Another common group of Turbinid snails are those going under the common name Astrea. Species in the Astraea, Lithopoma, and Australium genera are commonly called this. While commonly recommended for reef tanks, these snails are often a suboptimal choice. They tend to meet untimely demises through a combination of stress, predation, and becoming trapped. The Astraea and Lithopoma species commonly present in the trade are not as strong as their Turbo relatives and can usually be removed from the tank wall without much effort. This is a potential problem given that they also have more difficulty than Turbo species righting themselves if they land stuck in an awkward position either point-down in the sand bed or trapped in a rocky crevice (the same problem exists to some extent for Trochid snails, although they seem less prone to being knocked off of surfaces). When immobilized, they are an easy target for predation and their operculums offer little protection from many crustaceans. Many Astraea and Lithopoma snails also dont seem to handle shipping well and may arrive to a store in poor condition, making premature death even more likely. Finally, Margarita snails are another common group of Turbinids. This common name is frequently used to refer to Margarites pupillus as well as various Tegula species, such as T. funebralis and T. rugosa. Margarites pupillus is a temperate to coldwater species that is not suitable for tropical tanks. Tegula funebralis is another common species under the Margarita name that has wide ranges extending along the west coast of North America through Mexico. Unfortunately Tegula species also have an unsteady track record in the aquarium. While some thrive and grow for years in the aquarium, many others will die suddenly after only a couple of months. The reason for this disparity is unclear, although tropical temperatures may be at least partially to blame for deaths of snails collected from coldwater environments included in the ranges. The shell database is extremely useful for identifying snails. Some examples of the snails discussed so far can be found at these URLs: Turbo flucuosus: Tectus fenestratus: Lithopoma tectum: Australium phoebium: Margarites pupillus: Tegula funebralis:

Figure 1. A Trochoid snail, probably Trochus histrio.

Figure 2. Turbo fructuous on the glass in an aquarium. Note the division between the left and right halves of the foot. These two halves operate semi-independently to let the snail literally walk in steps while keeping a tight hold on surfaces with at least of its foot at any given time.

Figure 3. Cittarium pica.

Cerithiid and Nassariid Snails

Cerithiid (Cerith) snails are a group of sand-burrowing, usually small species. The mouth is small and mounted on the end of a small trunk, and the foot is proportionally small (compared to something like a Turbo species). One of the most commonly available species, Cerithium stercusmuscarusm, has a brown shell that ranges from mostly smooth to having regularly occurring, small bumps. The usually do not exceed a length of 1 (2.5cm), although rarely larger individuals will occur. Occasionally other, larger species make it into the trade, reaching impressive sizes of 3-4 and having more colorful shells. Cerithiids feed largely on find algae and detritus that accumulates in the sand bed, although sometimes they will leave the sand bed in search of other food. The smaller Cerithiids do not require a deep sand bed, but will greatly benefit from one at least 1 deep since, in addition to providing a suitable feeding range, it provides protection from predation while the animals are buried. Cerithiids can aid in ridding sand beds of diatoms and cyanobacter outbreaks by helping to keep the sand bed turned over regularly, and Cerithiids will sometimes even eat diatoms directly. Nassariids (often just called by its most common genus, Nassarius) are snails belonging to Nassariidae a family of carnivorous whelks. Unless attracted by food, they will sit buried beneath the sand with their siphons extended above the surface. Numerous species exist in the trade that are behaviorally more-or-less identical and therefore equally well-suited to being part of a CUC. Even some relatives from other families, such as the colorful Babylonia species, are sufficiently similar to fill the same role in a tank. Unlike Cerithiids, Nassariids cannot subsist just on detritus and algae, having mouths designed for scavenging on meaty foods. They can eat some prepared foods for carnivores but will thrive more if supplied with periodic access to actual meat. Often a 10

source of alarm for those not expecting to see it, Nassariids feed with a long proboscis that is hidden except when feeding. On some species, this proboscis can be several times the snails shell length. Not all tanks may have a need for Nassariids, such as fish-less nanos/picos where there may be insufficient food to maintain Nassariids without supplemental feeding. Nassariids will be most useful in tanks fed regularly with frozen and pelleted foods, since they will consume trapped pieces of leftover food that may be inaccessible even to other CUC animals, such as hermit crabs. Caution: Nassariids are capable of predation on certain snails and other sessile invertebrates. This behavior is quite rare in the aquarium and may be linked to overstocking and/or insufficient meaty food. Similar behavior is observable in other snails when placed under starvation conditions, such as the freshwater snails Pomacea diffusa and Physa acuta. These snails will sometimes exhibit predatory and even cannibalistic behavior when starved. Given that these are normally strict scavenging species with herbivorous tendencies, it is no surprise that obligate carnivores such as Nassariids may resort to predation if stressed. Fortunately, there is a simple way to minimize the chances of predation: do not overstock and, if food becomes scarce, offer meaty foods to scavenging snails once or twice per week (if they are uninterested, remove the food after ~15min).

Figure 4. Three Nassariid snails.


Hermit Crabs
Hermit crabs are perhaps the most controversial CUC member, with distinctly pro-hermit and anti-hermit sides of the hobby. The pro-hermit side asserts that hermit crabs fill a unique role in the CUC and the anti-hermit side asserts that they cause more problems than they solve. Both of these statements can be true under different circumstances. Both are also false under other circumstances. Frankly, no tank needs hermit crabs, just as no tank needs any specific other CUC animal or ornamental animal in order to function. There is always more than one stocking option for any given tank. Hermits are simply a convenient option for many tanks. The role that hermit crabs can fill in a CUC is that of a rock picker for lack of a better way to describe it. Snails simply do not have the same prying ability that enables hermits to remove certain types of algae and debris from rocks. There are other combinations of animals that can accomplish the same thing (such as certain shrimp and true crabs), but small hermits are by far the hardiest solution for this role while posing the least risk to the other animals in most stocking lists. At the root of the complaints of hermits being trouble-makers are the following facts: 1. Hermits require snail shells as homes and will take them by force (either from a snail or another hermit) if left with no other choice. The type of the shells is important as well. Even when shells are abundant, a hermit will still be forced to kill a snail for a useful shell if the available shells are ill-fitting, damaged, or otherwise uninhabitable. 2. Hermits are NOT herbivores. They are omnivores and also active predators on certain other animals. Even in the case of reef-safe species, small worms and other organisms brought in by the rockwork will be on the menu, but this usually doesnt present a problem for most tanks. How many other animals are on the menu depends on the species and size of the individual. 3. When kept in groups, hermits will experience some degree of competition for space, food, and shells. Too much competition over any one of these can easily result in increased aggression. Fortunately, having hermit crabs that clean your rocks while remaining peaceful is as the following: Provide lots of empty shells of the right shape and keep them clean (and therefore habitable). This will help avoid problems to do with fact #1. The shells need to be the right shape (research what the species prefers ) and at any given time, there should be at least a few shells available that are larger than the largest hermits shell. Stock only small species with proportionally small claws. This minimizes the potential for trouble related to facts #1 and #2. There are two main small


options in the trade: small Clibanarius species and Paguristes cadenati. Of the two choices, the small Clibanarius species available stay substantially smaller on average than full-grown P. cadenati. Stocking larger species or those with larger and therefore stronger claws (e.g. Calcinus and Dardanus species) should be done with care. Similarly, unusually-shaped species like Ciliopagurus strigatus warrant additional planning. Dont stock hermits with small snails (e.g. Nerites) and dont provide snails with shells that might make good homes to move into because of the size. This avoids problems due to fact #2 above. For example, a stocking of small Clibanarius species (such as C. digueti) with large Turbo species will be safe. Stock slowly and dont overstock. This avoids problems with fact #3 above. Simply put, there is no such thing as a useful per-gallon stocking rule for these animals. In small tanks, adding only one or two at a time spaced out over several weeks is the safest way to stock hermit crabs. You must have a chance to observe the impact on the environment made by only a few hermits to accurately guess how many more will be needed. This avoids unnecessary competition over food resources. Make an effort to identify the species BEFORE you buy it. This should really be done for all animals, as stocking mystery critters is always risky and common names for invertebrates (including hermits) generally dont have a one-to-one relationship with scientific names. Hobbyists often overlook the need for species identification, assuming that one hermit is interchangeable for another but this is clearly not the case when one considers the diversity of features present in the species (size, claw morphology, etc.). Avoid mixing species in small tanks (e.g. nanos). If you do, you are asking for additional extra trouble concerning fact #3 above. This holds for many species even when stocked for non-janitorial purposes and also sometimes in larger tanks. While not all tanks have problems in this regard, stocking mixed species out of carelessness results in many unnecessary hermit deaths when problems do occur. This may seem like a lengthy list of considerations to some, but bear in mind that similar steps are encouraged when choosing and stocking fish. There is no reason not to afford invertebrates the same degree of consideration. The discussion so far centers around hermit species commonly sold as CUC members. There are also other species that are distinctly unsuited for being part of a CUC due to their size and behavior. Large species have a much greater potential for disaster if thrown into an arbitrary tank and therefore require a greater level of stocking consideration than something like Clibanarius tricolor (one of the small Clibanarius species). Large hermit crabs can do more mess-making than rock-cleaning by throwing sand all over a tank and upturning rocks. They are also prone to curiosity-based acts of destruction that are a non-issue for smaller, weaker species.


Figure 5. Clibanarius digueti.

For more information on hermit crab care, compatibility, and species identification, please refer to the current draft of The Care and Keeping of Marine Hermit Crabs, located on at:

Mithracid True Crabs

Crabs in the Mithracidae family, commonly called Mithrax or Mythrax crabs, are one of few groups of true crabs that can be considered reef safe. However, this safety is not without caveats. These crabs have claws designed for removing small encrusting organisms and rooting algae. They are often sold for hair algae removal, but one need not look far to find complaints about these crabs failing to eat hair algae. An important note about these crabs is that they are NOT herbivores as sometimes advertised. They are omnivores, and as with all true crabs, if they are not kept well-fed they will began to treat the tank like a buffet, eating what organisms they can. Because of this, Mithracid crabs are best stocked sparsely and primarily in larger tanks where they have plenty of live rock for foraging. Other groups of crabs sometimes make their way into the trade, but these are generally not recommended as CUC animals. Grapsid grabs (Sally lightfoot crabs) and various fiddler species appear, but these carry significant risk to other invertebrates. While it is possible to stock non-Mithracid true crabs safely, it is often much more difficult and therefore best left to those who have done plenty of research and who wish to stock crabs out of a true love of crabs rather than out of a need for various janitorial services in the aquarium.


Figure 6. A small Mithraculus sp. crab.

Figure 7. An example of the type of claw shape characteristic of Mithracid crabs this feature serves to distinguish them from other types of potentially harmful crabs that often hitchhike in on live rock.

CUC Requiring an Established Aquarium

A mature tank is one that has been running problem-free for at least a few months. For most animals, 4 months is a reasonable guideline, and for more fragile animals 6 months will be more fool-proof. This time gives fauna on the rocks a chance to sort itself out and stabilize, creating a safer environment for animals that are easily stressed by shifts in water quality. Microalgaes should be abundant on the rock, populations of small Copepods, Ostracods, Amphipods, and/or Isopods should be established (although they may be rarely visible if eaten by fish), and the sand bed should show a reasonable amount of worms and other life.


True Conches
The common name conch gets applied to two types of snails: true conches belonging to Strombidae and various predatory whelks. Here, only true conches will be addressed. The predatory whelks go by common names such as crown conch and horse conch and are unsuitable CUC animals. True conches can be beneficial sand bed cleaners, scavenging uneaten food and keeping the sand stirred. True conches have a long, trunk-like proboscis that is always visible (the predatory whelks have a proboscis that only extends for feeding and remains hidden otherwise). Their mouth designed to lick surface much like a cats tongue. They will graze on algae as well as dig through the sand bed. These animals are not as hardy as some other snails and therefore should not be first into the tank. They also require either very mature live rock and sand beds or periodic access to supplemental food. Conches will readily accept soft foods such as dried seaweed and pelleted foods or wafers, although hard foods can only be consumed once they have softened up and started falling apart. Ample sand bed space is necessary for keeping most conches, especially the larger species of fighting conch and queen conches. Conches move by pushing themselves along with their uniquely shaped feet and sometimes by hopping. If sufficient stomping space isnt present on the sand, conches will search elsewhere for food and are not necessarily intimidated by a rocky climb. Small individuals can sometimes even climb smooth, vertical surfaces. However, despite the ability to make the trip up, the trip down is rarely graceful. Climbing conches may launch themselves off of rocks to the detriment of whatever animals they may land on. Conches are also more susceptible to predation and harassment than Turbinid snails. They lack a tight-fitting operculum and are easy prey for some large crustaceans as a result. Aggressive fish or crustaceans may damage the eyes, which are on long stalks. These can sometimes heal or re-grow, but this kind of stress should be avoided.


Figure 8. Strombus luhuanus. Note the elongated eyestalks characteristic of true conches in Strombidae.

Cowries are snails that receive mixed reviews in the marine community. This is largely due to misunderstanding of the animals diets and also the lack of precision involved in the common name. True cowries from the family Cypraeidae (many in the genus Cypraea) are often confused with other relatives (such as the Ovulids) that are active predators on corals. Here only true Cypraeid cowries will be addressed. The most commonly available cowries in the trade are money cowries and tiger cowries. The common names for these make little sense removed from the scientific names: Cypraea moneta and C. tigris respectively. More than one species gets sold under the label of money cowrie (sometimes also chestnut cowrie), including Neobernaya spadicea. They are all small grazing species that usually do not exceed 1 in length. These species are considered reef safe and exhibit little in the way of bulldozing tendencies, since their small size makes them unlikely to dislodge rocks and corals. The diet largely consists of microalgae, and tougher algae-based foods such as dried seaweed may be rejected. Barren and newly established tanks can risk starvation for these cowries. Cypraea tigris look little like the common name would suggest in the adult form, the one almost exclusively seen in the trade. Adult cowries have a shell with a mottling of black and brown spots over a lighter background, fading to white near the sides. The mantle in these animals has many projections ending in white tips. While typically pictured with the mantle retracted, they are equally stunning (although quite different in appearance) with it in full view.


Cypraea tigris is also the cowrie responsible for a lot of the bad reputation cowries have in some areas of the trade. These snails are usually grazers, but are in fact omnivores, as they will snack on the occasional carnivore pellet and are also avid eaters of small encrusting sponges. However, they are not coral predators. Most cases of cowries seen eating corals simply amount to the cowries having wandered into a patch of already failing coral, probably eating algae or other microbes that are starting to overtake the area. Although I have seen absolutely no evidence of true coral predation in healthy individuals, a deliberate assault on a healthy corals could also be a response to starvation a condition under which many animals will exhibit abnormal feeding habits out of desperation. C. tigris is also a very strong and large species, easily reading 4 in length with some larger individuals occurring. Their tremendous strength means that rocks can be moved and fragile coral frags placed in unfortunate locations may be damaged simply by the cowrie trying to muscle past. These cowries also eat an impressive amount, meaning that they must be given frequent (sometimes daily) access to a variety of dried seaweeds in smaller and/or barren tanks. However, unlike the smaller, more finicky species, they can be easily maintained on such frequent feedings. In general, it is a bit of a stretch to consider cowries as an integral part of any CUC. While Cypraeid cowries will graze, they are not necessarily good glass-cleaners like large Turbo species. The smaller cowrie species can be considered beneficial grazers, but they are much more fragile than most Turbinid snails and really should only be placed in a well-established tank with plenty of grazing area colonized by microalgae. Larger species such as Cypraea tigris are similarly best left to established tanks unless regularly fed with dried seaweed. Generally speaking, if you have a need for algae removal rather than simply a desire for a beautiful and interesting animal, it is better to choose more hardy species and treat cowries as ornamental specimens.

Figure 9. Cypraea tigris feeding on a strand of Chaetomorpha macroalgae.


Sea Urchins
Sea urchins are sometimes classified as CUC additions for the fact that many species will eat coralline algae and other encrusting algaes that cannot be removed by snails. In tanks with fast coralline growth, the live rock will benefit from keeping its porous surfaces exposed rather than fully encrusted. However, this service is not needed in all tanks, particularly those with little or no coralline growth. That is not to say that sea urchins cant be kept ornamentally, but they are rarely essential member of the CUC. There are two reasons that sea urchins should not be added until an aquarium has matured for at least a couple of months. The first is a condition is a bit broad and sweeping, but is a reasonable caution to new aquarists: sea urchins are Echinoderms, which means they are fairly fragile compared to other CUC animals discussed so far, such as snails and hermit crabs. Echinoderm ailments often set in quickly and are difficult to reverse successfully. In the case of sea urchins, it is fairly common for a new aquarist to purchase one that suddenly drops spines after introduction to an aquarium. The hobbyist is then left fishing frantically for a solution and the animal is likely doomed. Causes of this kind of rapid failure can be related to insufficient diet, rushed acclimation, or poor water conditions. It is therefore important to only introduce these animals into a stable system, as it eliminates at least the last of the most common causes of failure. The second reason that urchins require a mature aquarium is partly related to the ailments mentioned already: they will likely be malnourished in a new tank. Most commonly available sea urchin species will thrive in an established aquarium eating a variety of foods from the rock. This places them in direct competition with many types of grazing snails, so stocking must be planned accordingly. If the tank is stripped bare, sea urchins can also thrive on regular feedings of dried seaweed and pelleted foods, provided that they are allowed enough time to consume the food un-harassed by other hungry animals. However, if the tank is already heavily stocked, the extra nutrients from supplemental feedings can result in a decline in water quality. There are a few groups of common urchins in the trade that are also fairly hardy and well-suited to many tanks. These tend to be grouped by appearance rather than taxonomy: pencil urchins, pincushion urchins, tuxedo urchins, and long-spine urchins. Pencil urchins have sparse, thick, blunt spines. Urchins under the pincushion label fall under a variety of genera, but all exhibit a relatively uniform and dense distribution of short spines. Tuxedo urchins, usually Mesopilla globulus, also have short spines, but have alternating spine-bearing and blue-colored, bald sections lacking spines in a pattern radiating out from the center. Long-spine urchins, as the name suggests, have numerous thin, elongate spines. These first three general categories of urchins are largely non-venomous and therefore rarely a threat to any other animals in the tank or humans, with the possible exception of some soft corals and other sessile invertebrates. Pencil urchins, such as Eucidaris tribuloides (the most commonly available pencil species), are better suited to non-reef tanks, since they are regularly reported to feed on soft corals. Xenia and its relatives seem to be especially at risk of being eaten. Pincushion and tuxedo urchins are usually more trustworthy around corals than pencil urchins, although behavior varies


between individuals. The suitability of pincushion urchins varies by exact species. Tuxedo urchins are generally considered safe around corals, although there are occasional cases of soft coral predation reported among these urchins as well. All three types are guilty of bulldozing coral frags and rocks that are not anchored down firmly. Tuxedo and some pincushion urchins will also carry bits of shells and small coral frags as camouflage. Long-spine urchins, usually Diadema species, while attractive, require large tanks due to their maximum size. The most common Diadema species, D. setosum, is identifiable by its incredibly long spines and a raised, bluish structure with an orange ring in the center of the spines. Although often confused for being an eye due to its appearance, this structure is actually the animals anus. There is conflicting information in the literature regarding whether Diadema urchins are venomous. Fossa and Nilsen in The Modern Coral Reef aquarium Vol. 4 (2002) state that human reactions to Diadema stings suggest the presence of a toxin, while Shimek in Marine Invertebrate: 500+ Esssential-to-Know Aquarium Species (2004) states that Diadema urchins are non-venomous. Regardless, the fragile spines easily embed themselves and break off in flesh and can be a hazard to both fish and human hands in the tank. Although less commonly seen in the trade, there are also sea urchins with venomous tube feet nestled between the spines. Some of these urchins are safe, but others are quite dangerous to humans. Lytechinus variegatus is a species that seems to be growing in popularity under the pincushion label. While many pincushins are Strongylocentrotus species of questionable suitability for reef tanks with high temperatures, L. variegatus is from warmer areas. This species is from the Toxopneustidae family of urchins, having modified, venomous tube feet, although L. variegates is not harmful to humans. There are two main color forms of this species in the trade: greenish-brown and purple/red. The latter exhibits a lack of the greenish pigments in the former, being largely white as a result. The preachers cap urchin, Tripneustes gratilla, is also from this family and is sometimes sold under the pincushion label as well as the tuxedo label.


Figure 10. The green color morph of Lytechinus variegatus. The white balls on stalks nestled between the spines are modified tube feet that can deliver a venomous bite. This is a western Atlantic species that ranges through the Caribbean.

Figure 11. The reddish-purple color morph of Lytechinus variegatus.


Figure 12. Eucidaris tribuloids, an omnivorous species that is the most common pencil species encountered in the trade. It is frequently nocturnal, hiding in the rockwork during the day and emerging to forage when the lights go out. The natural range for this species is quite large, spanning both the eastern and western sides of the Atlantic.

Figure 13. Echinometra lucunter, a Caribbean grazing species feeding on hair algae in the aquarium. Special care must be taken when transporting and moving sharp-spined species such as this this individual punctured a heavy-duty plastic bag in transport from store to aquarium! These urchins are usually sold as rock-boring urchins but occasionally also gets placed under the pincushion and long-spine labels.


Figure 14. Strongylocentrotus purpuratus, an urchin falling under the pincushion label. Unfortunately, it is not very well-suited to most reef aquariums due to its need for somewhat cooler temperatures. Its natural range extends along the western coast of North America from the southern tip of California northward through Canada.

Brittle/Serpent Stars
Brittle and serpent stars are on the hardier end of the scale for starfish and their relatives. However, they are not as hardy as something like a Turbinid snail. They can be added to established tanks, but their usefulness as a CUC animal is questionable. While they will certainly scavenge uneaten food scraps, larger individuals of some species can pose a hazard to other animals in the tank, predating on other invertebrates and sometimes even small fish. One such species is Ophiarachna incrassata, sometimes called the green death by hobbyists who have observed its predatory nature and fishcatching ability. Other species, such as those in the Opheoderma genus, are reportedly much safer, although they may also prey on some sessile invertebrates.


Figure 15. Ophioderma appressum in the aquarium. This Caribbean species of serpent star has a wide range of color variation, including some more spectacular patterns with a mixture of dark grey/brown and white markings on the body and brightly-banded arms. It is generally a scavenger and is easily fed on carnivore pellets.

Animals Requiring Specialized or Expert Care

Some animals are often placed into the CUC category despite requiring either a dedicated/specialized tank built around them or are fragile enough to require expert-level care. For a beginner not well-versed in marine systems and the various compatibility issues that can arise, the following animals should be strictly avoided when putting together a CUC.

Large Hermit Crabs

While there are volumes that can be said about these fascinating animals, in short they are simply too bombastic for the average tank. Rock stacks can quickly become rock avalanches, lightweight coral frags can be thrown around, and the entire environment will generally be wrapped around what the hermit crab wants and where it wants to go unless a great deal of care is taken to crab-proof the tank. This is not to say that they cant become CUC additions with enough special consideration but new hobbyists should familiarized themselves with smaller species first as part of a first time CUC or plan on setting up a species tank to observe large hermit crabs in an area they cannot destroy.


Figure 16. Dardanus megistos in the aquarium. These hermits have the ability to pry apart otherwise sturdy structures held together with substantial amounts of superglue and/or epoxy putty. They will also go to great lengths to dismantle any equipment that is within reach. At the same time, these hermits make very good sand-sifters and are able to keep deep sand beds sparkling clean, but this by no means makes them a reasonable solution to messy sand beds in the average tank.

Figure 17. Clibanarius vittatus. While not nearly as aggressive as Dardanus megistos, C. vittatus is another large hermit whose size and strength make the species unsuitable as a typical CUC member.


Figure 20. Dolabella auricularia feeding on various species of Caulerpa macroalgae.

Sea Stars
From the standpoint of the beginner interested in setting up a small reef or community tank, there are essentially three types of stars: those that will risk eating other invertebrates (including CUC animals and corals) in your tank, those that risk starving to death in your tank, and Asterina stars. Many of the commonly seen, large, colorful starfish are predatory. This includes the well-known chocolate chip stars. In addition to posing a risk to any slow-moving or sessile livestock, these stars also fall into the second category at risk of starving to death. In smaller tanks these animals can deplete available food supplies very fast and require relatively frequent feeding. While the diet of these stars can in some sense make them easier to keep and hardier than other detritivore stars, predatory starfish do not belong in a CUC and should be left to more experienced aquarists with species tanks. Expanding on the second category of stars are the Fromia and Linckia species. These are long-armed stars that feed on microorganisms and perhaps algaes on live rock. The diets of many species are poorly documented. Compared to other animals discussed so far, these are extremely fragile and require a large amount of live rock to, one hopes, have a continuous supply of food. Some experts have reported successful target feeding with pellets (see Fossa and Nilson), but the unfortunate fact is that many of these stars starve within a year even in reasonably-sized systems maintained by average hobbyists. At a bare minimum, these animals should be considered expert-only. Better yet, these animals should simply not be considered as CUC additions at all due to their diets and


fragile nature. They may perhaps be considered as ornamental animals for large, mature systems, under expert care, but they are completely unsuited to other tanks. Sand-sifting species are another group that is safe in the sense that they wont see the rest of your CUC as lunch. However, they will decimate life in the sand bed potentially the entire sand bed making their occasionally advertised status as a CUC animal rather misleading, since diverse sand bed fauna is a desirable thing to have in most tanks. Unless the tank is enormous or some kind of target-feeding is attempted, these animals are liable to completely deplete beneficial fauna and then starve. As with the Fromia and Linckia stars, since starvation can take months, it is unfortunately written off by many as being due to other natural causes. For the sake of their survival, these animals should be left to experts. The one exception to these two categories that is also a beneficial addition to the CUC but is rarely sold due to their minute size and abundance as hitchhikers: Asterina stars. These are common stowaways on live rock and readily reproduce by fission in the aquarium. A small amount of caution is warranted as some Asterina have been observed to eat soft corals such as Zoanthids. However, these cases are relatively rare and the average Asterina spotted crawling out of a rock should be treated as innocent until proven guilty.

Figure 21. A starfish at the New England Aquarium in Boston, MA. Classic-looking starfish such as this one often prove difficult for non-expert hobbyists to maintain long-term.


Sea Cucumbers
Sea cucumbers, often simply called cucs for short, are commonly sold in online CUC collections. This is unfortunate, since they are filter feeders the very type of animal that does NOT belong in a newly established tank. Some, like the sea apple, are also quite toxic and can cuc nuke a tank if stressed. While not all sea cucumbers are toxic, they are nonetheless fragile and decay rapidly if they starve to death or die from other environmental stress. Sea cucumbers should not be added to any new tanks and should only be added to established tanks after the hobbyist has done a significant amount of reading on them. At the very least, one must be able to differentiate toxic species and those with poor captive track-records from somewhat safer varieties without relying on the word of a salesperson or an arbitrary hobby-related website. The lack of detailed documentation and amount of conflicting information available on the Internet and in books makes this a nontrivial task. Given the current state of the hobby and its knowledge base, for the sake of wellbeing of the animals, it is best for new hobbyists to simply avoid sea cucumbers and consider them expert-only. In addition to having typical Echinoderm problems such as poorly understood ailments and rapid decline when such ailments set in, their dietary needs are difficult to maintain in all but very large tanks without dosing special foods for filter feeders. If improperly done, this can lead to large amounts of excess waste in the water and poor water conditions which are often battled by new hobbyists even without dosing special foods.

Figure 22. A colorful sea cucumber in an exhibit at the New England Aquarium in Boston, MA. This variety is occasionally seen in the aquarium trade.


References and Recommended Reading

Ronald L. Shimek, 2005. A PocketExpert Guide to Marine Invertebrates: 500+ Essentialto-Know Aquarium Species. Microcosm. This is a valuable resource for the hobbyist interested in marine invertebrates, since it contains both textual descriptions and color photos of many of the most commonly seen invertebrates. Svein A. Fossa and Alf Jacob Nilsen, 2002. The Modern Coral Reef Aquarium, Volume 4. Birgit Schmettkamp Verlag, Bornheim, Germany. This is the fourth volume in a series on marine aquariums and animals. This volume details Mollusks, Echinoderms, and Tunicates. It gives fairly detailed captive care information and descriptions for many species.