"Oh what pretty tube-feet you have!" A pair of harlequin shrimp on a rubble patch off the coast of Sulawesi are having a Linkia seastar for dinner.
Not only are their colors spectacular, the appendages on the thorax are very ornate. There are several pair of anterior appendages that have flattened expansions. For example, the chelipeds are large and shield-like. The maximum length is approximately 5 cm.
What is particularly interesting about the Hymenocera spp. is that they feed on sea stars. A pair of these beautiful beasties (the adults are almost always found in pairs) will drag sea stars to their lair or incapacitate them where they find them. These shrimps will vigorously stab their sea star prey with the spike-like end of one pair of legs. It may be that the shrimp are puncturing the water vascular system of the sea star so that it cannot move off. In this way, they would be able to control some of the large asteroids that they typically feed on. That said, some sea stars do escape even after having an appendage removed.
When you add a sea star to the tank, your harlequin shrimp will typically begin waving their appendages from side to side and begin searching for their prey. I assume that they locate their prey by smell. It may take several minutes before they find the unfortunate echinoderm and when they do, they will leap on it and begin flipping the sea star over on its back.
Harlequin shrimp are fairly site specific, living in the same small area of the reef or rubble for months - as long as there are enough echinoderms present.
Their feeding behavior is somewhat Hannibal Lector-like. When they consume sea stars, they begin feeding at the end of the arms, working their way toward the central disc. In this way, they can keep their “living buffet” fresh longer. In some cases, the shrimp will amputate an arm and let the rest of the sea star escape. Although it depends on the size of their echinoderm prey, the harlequin shrimp will take several days to several weeks to consume an entire sea star. They prefer sea stars in the genera Fromia, Linckia, Nardoa and Archaster, but will eat other species as well (including the crown-of-thorns sea star, Acanthaster planci). In the aquarium, they will occasionally feed on sea urchins and brittle sea stars. They will need a ready supply of sea stars if they are going to survive in the aquarium. A medium-sized chocolate chip sea star should last a pair of harlequin shrimp about one week, but you only need to feed your shrimp a sea star once every three or four weeks. Make sure you remove the uneaten portions of the sea star so that it does not pollute the aquarium. These shrimps will also eat Asterina sea stars, which can get out of control in some reef systems. Some reef aquarists have even employed harlequin shrimp to decimate Asterina populations.
A captive harlequin shrimp begins the process of flipping over its spiny skinned prey. The shrimp pushes against the bottom with its chelae and pulls with its legs to lever the sea star onto its back.
Although it is possible to keep these shrimp with fishes that do not eat crustaceans, I think they are best kept in a nano-reef aquarium. If you decide to keep your harlequin shrimp into a community aquarium, do not keep them with crustaceans-eaters (of course) or overly aggressive fishes. Suitable tankmates would include seahorses, pipefishes, anthias, small gobies, dartfishes and dragonets. Of course, in small tank you will have to make sure you promptly take out sea stars remains that are beginning to decompose to prevent pollution problems.
One they flip over a sea star it is almost like the echinoderm goes into a trance, putting up very little resistance to the hungry crustacean.
A beautiful example of the H. picta color form. Note the yellow margins around the maroon blotches.
This beautiful little shrimp, known as the bongo shrimp in the aquarium trade, is a predator of brittle sea stars.
Beautiful, ornate and tiny, the bongo shrimp is easy to lose track of in a larger reef aquarium.
That ends our brief examination of the shrimp in the family Hymenoceridae that you might encounter in the aquarium trade. If you are willing to meet their very specialized dietary requirements, these crustaceans can make fascinating additions, especially in the nano-reef aquarium.
Fosså, S. A. and A. J. Nilsen. 2000. The Modern Coral Reef Aquarium. Volume 3. Birgit Schmettkamp Verlag, 448 Pp.
© Scott W. Michael - article and photos should not be reproduced without the authors permission