The Case for Invertebrates

Invertebrates are often sought solely for their ability to clean up a tank, but there is much to be gained from giving them the care and attention they deserve.


For many shops that carry a full line of both marine equipment and aquatic livestock, the category of invertebrates is frequently an afterthought. It is simple enough to throw a few coral-banded shrimp and substrate scavengers onto a livestock order, but it requires time and effort to put together a really comprehensive and relevant list of the marine invertebrates a store can actually sell. After all, today’s reef sales tend to concentrate on corals first, fish second and invertebrates last. However, with a little time, effort and consideration, these creatures can shine on their own merits and add a boost to a store’s aquatic offerings.  

Corals are invertebrates, but no one in the trade treats them that way. They are not lumped into the invertebrate category; they are given their own niche—as well they should. As things stand right now, the problem with selling corals is that everybody is doing it. The market is saturated with supply. This is not the case with what I call the “true” or “classic” marine invertebrates. These animals tend to be in short supply, since virtually no one raises them commercially. A quick look at marine inverts reveals that corals are sessile invertebrates, while most of other marine animals are motile. Sessile means the animals stay put in one location, even though they can expand by growing, much like a plant. Motile means they have the ability to move around freely on their own accord. In general, motile inverts gain little energy directly from sunlight. Many sessile marine inverts are dependent on natural light to thrive and survive. 

Motile invertebrates are often useful additions to marine aquariums, as many species help to keep a closed-system environment clean. In fact, pet shops frequently merchandise marine inverts as “The Clean-up Crew.” I must admit it is a catchy moniker, but I feel it underestimates an entire category of marine livestock. When properly staged, a motile invert display can be just as spectacular as any coral or fish aquarium. And like any of these, it can be just as difficult to balance. Fish can fight with each other, corals can fight with each other, and yes, even motile invertebrates fight among themselves. Hence, the need for an expert or a marine department made up of several people who understand the complex dynamics between all the competing elements in a marine environment.

As far as the hobby is concerned, there are reef enthusiasts and fish fans, but invertebrate lovers are few and far between. And yet, virtually every person keeping a marine aquarium has these animals in their tanks. They are just not the focal point of the displays. But even though invertebrates are playing second fiddle to everything else, they can bring pet specialty retailers a strong source of revenue when merchandised properly. So I recommend giving them their own dedicated space in the store.

When people realize a retailer cares not only about the customers but also the livestock it sells, they are much more likely to return to the establishment. For instance, often, a customer will rush into a store, exclaiming, “I need a dozen turbo snails immediately, algae is overtaking my tank.” So, the retailer will sell them the snails, and one or two weeks later, the algae is gone and well over half of the snails are dead because they are left with nothing to eat. Most people don’t care—all they wanted was for the algae to go away. However, a better solution is to sell them half the number of snails and give those snails a fighting chance to survive. In the retail trade, such thoughtfulness is rare, but it can be rewarded by customer loyalty. 

Educating people about marine invertebrates is part of a pet specialty retailer’s job—leave the impersonal mass merchandising to the big-box outlets. Independent retailers have the capacity to treat people like individuals rather than numbers. As an independent owner, you set the bar high enough so that you can always feel good about the influence you have on your patrons. In other words, show them the way.

Most marine reef tanks will require both snails and crabs to clean up algae and small particles of food left over from feeding fish. Snails that live in the substrate and those that cruise on exposed surfaces—be they rock, gravel or glass—are very important. Shrimp, on the other hand, are a bit more for decoration, even though they do serve some positive functions. No matter which of these a tank may have, there are fish that will eat them if given the chance. Triggerfish come to mind immediately, but other predatory types may be quite dangerous as well. And, of course, some shrimp species are territorial and even predatory. 

A good technique for selling inverts is to give each of them a safety rating with the safest receiving an A+ and the most dangerous get a failing grade, an F. Mantis shrimp, for example, receive an F. They are big and mean enough to prey on many fish, plus they can do some damage to you as well if they grab on. 

Coral-banded shrimp may fight among themselves if the space provided is too small. I usually recommend no more than one pair for every 40 gallons of water. So, in a 125-gallon setup, you might be able to keep three pair. Other shrimp species can be kept in much larger numbers, since they are rarely aggressive. In general, small crabs and shrimp usually get along, but knowing the bad actors is critical to success.

If your store does blockbuster business in the marine department, then your technique for displaying marine inverts may be quite straightforward. Cubicles come to mind, but they are so sterile and featureless. I used to be a big fan of cubicles, but one day I watched as food flowed through each compartment so fast that many residents were unable to react quickly enough to catch the items. Much of it ended up being trapped by the filter in the sump. Even feeding cubicles individually does not always work unless, of course, you cut off the water flow, which can be dangerous for numerous reasons.

A much better choice if you have the room and enough inventory is to use 10-gallon tanks in which you can actually supply or create a habitat for the animals. These tanks are so much more versatile than cubicles, but they do require a good deal of maintenance. Snails, meanwhile, tend to need more space and environments they can’t crawl out of. 

My favorite marine scavengers are starfish—popularly referred to as sea stars. These inverts mush be given a great deal of substrate, and or rock cover, to space themselves out. But, many of them do like to hide, so a habitat must be flexible or maneuverable, so you can locate them when you start searching for them. Often, you can look into a tank, say a 40-gallon hatchery style tank, with a dozen brittle stars and never see a one.

There are a number of under-appreciated inverts that I like to stock, including live snails such as cowries, whelks, conches, trochus, nerite, tulip, murex, olive, etc. The list is almost endless, but there are plenty of both types (cone) or species (flamingo) that could pose a danger to other display organisms. It’s really critical to know the safe ones from the dangerous ones.

Let’s say a tank is full of anemones in the genus Aiptasia. This is one animal you don’t want showing up because it reproduces as fast as roaches. So, you stock peppermint shrimp to eat them, and you advertise these as such. The problem is there are two species of peppermint shrimp and only Lysmata wurdemanni really works at eating the Aiptasia. No matter how good an invert can be, there are usually drawbacks—or tradeoffs—so be certain you are familiar with the species before you merchandise it. 

Giant clams in the genus Tridacna are extremely popular, and they are cultured in many locales around the world specifically for the marine trade. My experience with these is that it is imperative that a tank with giant clams must be totally free of bristle worms. These pests will eventually crawl into a clam and eat it from the inside out. If you sell live rock, it is impossible to guarantee it to be 100 percent free of bristle worms. Even small pieces of live coral attached to artificial or natural holdfasts can harbor unseen bristle worms. Any tank at your store where you might house these beautiful clams should be species specific—meaning clams and only clams, without corals or rocks of any kind. This will protect both you and your customers.

Finally, there are many exotic, colorful and spectacular species of anemones to sell, but they are all potentially hazardous to fish. The carpet anemones are famous for hosting clownfish, but they might just as easily kill them. Customers must be cautioned that putting any anemone in their tanks comes with a certain inherent risk that no one can obviate. Although nine out of 10 times, there are no problems, let the buyer beware and be forewarned.

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.


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