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How to Feed a Harlequin Shrimp

Harlequin shrimp are beautiful, ornate shrimp that are very specialized feeders.  They only eat starfish…repeat…they only eat starfish.  They prefer to take full-sized starfish back to their “cave” in order to feed.  But, in order to decrease the cost of Harlequin feeding, many aquarists prefer to feed the shrimp a single starfish leg at a time.

Harlequin Shrimp Dragging a Linkia to its Cave

Harlequin Shrimp Dragging a Linckia to its Cave

When my mated pair of Harlies were small, they usually ate a single starfish leg in a week.  Now, they can eat a leg in a single day.  Please keep these experiences in mind if you’re considering purchasing Harlequins.  Feeding them may cost $5-20 a month (or more depending on the availability of starfish).  They will eat Asterina starfish (frequent hitchhikers), but these are like going on a day-long hike to find a single potato chip.  Also, some Harlequins will eat frozen starfish, but this isn’t a guarantee all will.  I am not aware of Harlequins eating brittle starfish.  Most starfish “play dead” when under attack and makes them easy targets for the shrimp.  However, brittle starfish will continue to fight, which makes them a poor target.

For those who have never fed a starfish to a Harlie, there are a few tricks I’ve learned along the way.  Good luck!

1.  Select a starfish – I generally use chocolate chip starfish since they are typically inexpensive.  However, they must be kept in a non-reef environment since they can be predatory.  They are also known for being cannibalistic, so they should be housed separately.  I keep one in the sump of my main display and one in the sump of my quarantine.  In order to decrease the risk to my reef, I only feed chocolate chip starfish legs (or the mouth without legs).  Reef-safe starfish (such as Linckia, Fromia, etc.) can be fed whole.  The shrimp will flip the starfish over and drag it on its back to the cave.  The shrimp will keep the starfish alive as long as possible, eating the legs first before eating the central mouth.

Flipping a Linckia over

Flipping a Linckia over

2.  Prevent infections – Starfish quickly succumb to infections and tissue degradation when exposed to air, so try to keep the starfish submerged as much as possible.  Also, use clean bone cutters when cutting a leg to decrease the likelihood of infection.

Keep it Submerged

Keep it Submerged

3.  I’ve noticed that cutting a leg off too close to the mouth seems to increase the likelihood of starfish death.  So, I try to leave at least one “chip” on each leg, or at least a part of the leg for other species of starfish.  In the photo below, my ideal cut lines are in red.

Starfish Cut Lines

Starfish Cut Lines

4.  Starfish are mostly bone, so using bone cutters is a must.  Using a scalpel will not work without causing undue stress to the starfish.

Use Bone Cutters

Use Bone Cutters

Starfish Leg

Starfish Leg

5.  Typically the starfish leg must be placed near the starfish home, otherwise hermit crabs will attempt to eat it first.

Harlequin Dragging a Leg Home

Harlequin Dragging a Leg Home

6.  The shrimp will feed on the leg until it is gone or starts to rot.  Within a day or so after finishing the leg, they will often start a new search for food.

Harlequin Searching for Food

Harlequin Searching for Food

2 comments

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  1. Marek

    Hi,
    I heard that one leg is enough for 2 weeks. I have 2 ( I think that still I have 2 🙂 ) harlequin shrimps in my tank. Thank you for direction how to cut legs. I am wondering whet are you doing with starfish after all legs are cut ? It it true that new legs are growing?

    1. admin

      Hello, and thanks for reading! Sorry for the delay – I must’ve missed this with all the holidays. Since I had two as well, I found that I had to have at least seven chocolate chip starfish to rotate between leg cutting in order for them to have enough time to regrow their legs. Otherwise, after the legs were gone, I fed the remaining center to the starfish. Depending on your water volume and tank characteristics, properly caring for seven or more starfish can be challenging enough as it is. I regularly fed mine large chunks of thawed raw seafood.

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