Remember those early saltwater keeping days, when you didn’t know much about your clean up crew other than that they can help keep your tank looking better and reduce algae scraping on your part? Typically, beginners simply go to their fish store, ask for “some cleaners, maybe some hermits and snails please” without really knowing what they are getting. Maybe now you are having a specific problem that you need a specialized clean up crew for, or your original snail fleet has lived out it’s days and now needs to be replenished. Or, you are one of the few new hobbyists who fully research what they need, and buy accordingly. Either way, this article is meant to teach you the specific diets of Turbos, Trochus, Bumblebee, Cerith, saltwater Nerite snails, and more so you can employ the best, most effective clean up crew possible.
The Turbo Snails
Within the hobby, we run into a multitude of species simply sold as “Turbos.” Usual, these are the common grey Mexican Turbos. Coming from The Sea of Cortez, it is thought that they tend to prefer staying in the cooler waters instead of the areas that reach 80 degrees during summer months. Although this is a highly debated topic, I find this to be supported by my experiences with them. I find these guys to be the least effective and shortest lived of the Turbos. In my experience, hobbyists usually have them for under a year before these big snails stop eating and die. Many die within the first few months in most people’s tanks. That being said, I have read stories of people keeping them for three or more years. If you do decide to go with Mexican Turbos, they can be seen eating hair algae, diatoms, and occasionally cyanobacteria.
I personally prefer Zebra Turbos, which seem to be much hardier and boast a lovely yellow or tan shell with dark brown or black stripes. Hair algae, diatoms, film algae, and sometimes, cyanobacteria. Note that Zebra and Mexican Turbos can get large, my biggest Zebra is over three inches in diameter. Small or loose rocks may be knocked over by these guys.
Another type, the Chestnut Turbo, stays smaller than their larger cousins. Chestnuts top out at two inches, but typically stay around an inch. They eat diatoms, detritus, and hair algae. Bright orange and tan shells make this variety a nice addition to any reef tank!
Arguably, these are one of the snails that simply should not be as easy to find in pet stores as they actually are. Margaritas are from the Indo-Pacific and western Americas. They live deeper than most snails, and in much cooler temperatures. Considered to technically be subtropical, they thrive in temperatures of 50 to 65 degrees Fahrenheit. Keeping them at reef temperatures drastically decreases their lifespan. Even so, I see them being sold to unsuspecting beginners frequently simply because they are inexpensive. Their diet of cyanobacteria, hair algae, and diatoms also helped boost their popularity. Unless you have a cold water tank, stay away from this species.
Astreas are probably one of, if not the most popular saltwater snail. They are cone shaped and consume film algae, diatoms, and occasionally shorter hair algae. These snails cannot right themselves if they fall, so you will need to be diligent and flip them over if you see them on their backs. Many people favor these snails because they stay small, typically around an inch in diameter.
Saltwater Nerite Snails
One of the smallest common snails, Nerites rarely reach an inch or more. They are great little snails that come in a variety of shell patterns and colors, just be sure you are purchasing the saltwater species and not a freshwater Nerite snail! Long lived (I have kept them for over five years), tolerant of warm temperatures up to 82 degrees, and their ability to get into tiny crevices due to their size make them a great addition to saltwater tanks. Film algae is their favorite, but they will also consume cyano, diatoms, and fine hair algae. Remember these tend to be nocturnal, so don’t bother them if you see them all clustered together in a corner during the day, they will venture out and eat at night!
Trochus snails are one of my favorite snails of all time, aside from Bumblebees. They have the same cone shape as Astreas, but with beautiful purple spirals to accent their white shells. Able to right themselves up, Trochus don’t require the attention some other species do. In addition, they can breed in the home aquarium! Babies will pop up slowly in your tank if you keep multiple snails, and who doesn’t love a free clean up crew? And, they are long lived- really long lived. Some have been kept in tanks for over ten years! They will consume large amounts of cyanobacteria and diatoms, more than the others mentioned in this article. Film and hair algae, along with detritus and leftover food, are also eaten by Trochus. Because of their hardiness, longevity, and huge appetites, these are some of the best snails you can keep!
Often used to complement Trochus, Cerith Snails prefer to live in the substrate and clean the glass beneath the sand line. Like the Trochus, they will readily eat diatoms and cyano more effectively than most other snail species. And, they also breed in tanks! I have kept specimens for over five years, and have many babies from my original clean up crew I added to my tank over seven years ago. Due to the fact that they prefer living in sand, they are great at keeping sand beds aerated and pristine. I find them to be more helpful that Nassarius snails. Cerith diets also include hair and film algae, detritus, and any particles they find in the substrate.
Unlike most reef snails, Nassarius are not herbivores. Rather, they are scavengers who seek out meaty foods. They live in the sand and can be seen unearthing themselves spastically every time you feed the tank, in the hopes of catching a stray mysis or pellet. Nassarius will keep sand beds aerated, and consume detritus, uneaten food, dead fish/coral/invertebrates and their molts, and any other decaying organics they can find. Most species stay around an inch long. I find that they are the most useful if kept in larger groups.
My other favorite snail, the Bumblebee, is not an herbivore. They are scavengers and meat eaters just like Nassarius. But, unlike Nassarius, they prefer living in the rocks and only occasionally venturing into the sand bed. They consume large amounts of detritus and decaying organics, so do not expect them to remedy an algae outbreak like saltwater Nerite Snails. To me, their best characteristic is the fact that they hunt and eat Vermetid snails,, flatworms, and small bristleworms. I have been stabbed by Vermetids and stung by bristleworms too many times to count, so I always have some Bumblebee snails in my tanks. Their yellow and black striped shells and ability to get into the tiniest of crevices only add to their appeal.
Despite their name, Fighting conchs are peaceful tank inhabitants. They help keep sand beds clean and aerated, as they are constantly searching for detritus or algae growing on and in the substrate. Their eyes are located on stalks, and they can often be seen poking out of the shell to watch you. Shells are beautifully decorated with various stripes and lines in many different shades of tan, brown, and cream, and up to four inches in length.
Whether you have a nano tank or a 300 gallon reef, employing a good clean up crew is important and can save you from future headaches. Many people are nervous about using hermit crabs, as some can become aggressive and kill tank mates, and snails are a good alternative even if you need a scavenger! Mixing the right combination of snails will ensure your tank never suffers from massive algae outbreaks. No matter which you choose, each one will bring something to the table and play a role in creating an ecosystem in your aquarium. From the giant Zebra Turbos to the tiny and humble saltwater Nerite snails, there is something out there for every type of hobbyist!