Invertebrates of all kinds, even ones that are small and sometimes hard to see in a tank, are a draw to the many hobbyists looking to populate their tanks.
A pet specialty store that is heavy into marine sales may have days when it sells more invertebrates than it does fish. Matching dollar sales, on the other hand, will still be quite an accomplishment. A retailer would have to sell a large amount of these small items to yield the same value as a single fish. For example, a retailer could sell a mixture of snails and hermit crabs for $10, while a single Fiji damsel would fetch an equal amount.
Still, the category is an important part of the aquatics business. Retailers that understand how to choose a strong assortment of invertebrates, as well as know how to maintain and sell them, will be in a great position to take advantage of this potentially lucrative segment of the market.
To start, it’s important to order a variety of inverts and discover what customers prefer. There are only a handful of items that you will want to stock consistently. The selection can be narrowed down to the best sellers. It’s best to migrate through a selection over a period of time or purchase items when they go on sale. When handled properly, marine invertebrates are easier to maintain in store than many species of fish.
Here are a few species to consider:
Sea stars are a fairly diverse group of animals, except in their basic structure (pentagonal). If you don’t know sea stars genus by genus, it is easy to make a mistake. There are sand-sifting stars that eat only detritus, and there are predatory stars that will eat coral and or virtually anything else in their path. An example of a predatory species well known to most hobbyists is the chocolate chip star. These are obviously not reef safe. If you want species that are highly ornamental but will not destroy a reef tank, look to the genera Fromia, Linckia and Phataria. These stars come in red, blue and mosaic patterns, so they add a splash of color to any tank.
On the other hand, bright red Echinaster sea stars from the Caribbean may be a danger to sessile animals. In general, many sea stars feed on sponges, as well as detritus, so keep that in mind when stocking your tanks.
Next are the serpent stars, with their long, sinuous arms, and their close relatives the brittle stars, similar in appearance but with a few paddle-shaped spines on the margins of their arms. Most of these are safe, except for the green monster brittle star, which traps fish at night when they are asleep.
The health and survival of crabs will also require some knowledge and finesse on the part of the retailer. For starters, retailers should know not to put crabs in small acrylic cubicles and expect them to survive very long. They are not like shrimp, many species of which will dig a cave in the sand under a rock and remain perfectly happy. Most crabs need to roam and explore to find food. Restricting their movements will bring a quick demise. (As with sea stars, you are going to go on an exploratory adventure to find these for customers.) You will, however, want to restrict the movement of a few large predatory crabs if you decide to carry them.
And what about hermit crabs? Yes, they are crabs, but an entirely different family from crabs such as porcelain, emerald, sally lightfoot, arrow and spider. Hermit crabs must live in the shells of dead snails. Without these “RVs”, the crabs have no place to call home. It is fascinating to watch them switch from one shell to another, but it is not always easy to observe. Hermit crabs are quick-change artists—in nature, they have to be. They are totally vulnerable when outside their shells.
Hermit crabs, like the blue leg, can be very small and reef safe. On the other hand, they can be large and destructive, like the starry-eyed hermit. Retailers will sell a lot of blue leg and red leg hermits. They adjust well to cubicles, since they’re so small. Just be certain that they can’t crawl out of their enclosures. If you buy hermits by the hundreds, you will need to feed them specifically, or you will lose a fair percentage. I suggest a sinking pelleted food of a very fine grain size. Hermits can range in price on a retail level from $1 to $30 depending on size, color of the crab and the shell they are calling home. Large, colorful hermits, like the electric-blue or Halloween species, sell for a premium.
Snails are another diverse group of animals that may be cheap or expensive. I am partial to cowries, since there are so many different species. But diversity comes with a price, since some are predatory. Usually, only the algae-grazing cowries are offered for sale. After this, there are too many types to mention, but a few include turbo, turban, star, nerite, moon, olive, nassa, cerith, bumble bee, tulip and conch. A retailers’s best bet is not to mix any of the types together unless it intends to sell them that way. I guarantee you that some customers will ask to pick through the mixed snails for specific types. It’s not worth a retailer’s time.
Shrimp are great for many tanks, but people seem to believe that they can go with just about any fish. This is a mistake, since many fish, such as groupers, wrasses, hawkfish, triggerfish and marine bettas, love to eat shrimp. Retailers should also resist selling customers shrimp for the sole purpose of cleaning parasites from fish (cleaner shrimp) or eating Aiptasia anemones (peppermint shrimp). These functions do occur, but not with sufficient frequency to save a fish from parasites or kill off all the Aiptasia in a tank.
Shrimp are perfect for bio-cubes or mini-tanks, where all the fish inhabitants are small and non-predatory. I particularly like to sell banded coral shrimp because they have interesting behaviors. Likewise, pistol shrimp can make noise and pair with gobies in a communal burrow.
The aforementioned species only scratch the surface of the marine invertebrate world, and that is without even considering corals and corallimorphs. Retailers will want to stock varieties of sponges, zoanthids, anemones, tube anemones, sea slugs, nudibranchs, Tridacna clams, thorny oysters, flame scallops, feather-duster worms, lobsters, sea urchins, sea cucumbers and tunicates.
Edward C. Taylor has been in the pet industry for over 30 years as a retailer, live fish importer and wholesaler and fish-hatchery manager.