Published October 20, 2009
We all know how much hard work and money it takes to get a quality saltwater aquarium set up. Now, imagine your dismay if every time you peeked into your aquarium, you noticed that your corals were being picked at or ripped apart. What could be causing this? The probable answer is that some animal in your tank, be it a fish or invertebrate, is not reef-safe. In other words, it will eat or kill your coral by inflicting continuous damage. Below is a listing of commonly available reef-safe fish and invertebrates. While the fish below are generally considered reef-safe, some do require very specific care (and some should only be kept by experience aquarist) so you should, as always, research all animals carefully before adding them to your tank. Also realize that there is always variability in the personalities of any species so you should always watch your specific individual to ensure it is not harming anything.
Readily Available Reef-Safe Fish
Japanese Swallowtail Angelfish
Smaller species of angelfish are generally considered reef-safe if kept in a tank with plenty of algae to graze on. If algae is not readily available, you must keep them well-fed so they do not begin to pick on corals. The Japanese Swallowtail Angelfish is the most reef-safe in this category.
These animals are a favorite reef-safe fish in the hobby. Some species, such as the False Percula Clownfish or Percula Clownfish provide no threat to tankmates. However, be sure to evaluate the other tank inhabitants before purchasing some species like a Clarks Clownfish or Cinnamon Clownfish, as they may find small ornamental shrimps a tasty treat.
Blue Spot Shrimp Goby
There are three types of goby fish: small gobies, shrimp gobies, and sand sifting gobies. Their diet varies between species but includes nutrients found in the substrate or brine shrimp. Thankfully, none of the varieties are fond of coral so that makes the goby a prime choice for reef tanks.
These beautiful fish are a good choice for reef tanks as they are herbivores and consume an algae-based diet. Tangs do have a few drawbacks in that certain species can be very aggressive to other members of their species and can easily outgrow a small tank. They also have a high incidence rate of contracting ich and HLLE (head and lateral line erosion). The Yellow Tang may be one of the better choices for a tank with multiple inhabitants as it generally does not bother other fish. If you are going to keep multiple yellow tangs, introduce them to the tank at the same time to promote compatibility.
Readily Available Reef-Safe Invertebrates
To keep your clean-up crew from ridding your tank of coral, stick with the following guide.
Dwarf Yellow Tip Hermit Crab
Hermit crabs are a great choice for janitorial services in reef tanksif you do your homework. Some species are excellent cleaners and some will destroy your coral and fish if given a chance. A few species that are considered safe for reef tanks are: Dwarf Blue Leg Hermit Crab, Electric Orange Hermit Crab, Halloween Hermit Crab, and Left-Handed Hermit Crab. These animals will all enjoy feasting on algae and sifting the sand in your tank as well.
Scarlet Skunk Cleaner Shrimp
These interesting animals are ornamental and useful in a tank. In addition to being scavengers and ridding your tank of detritus, some even perform fish cleaning services, eating infected tissue and parasites off of them. There are many good choices for inclusion into a reef tank, but be sure they are listed as reef-safe. Many varieties consider coral a delicacy. Some reef-safe shrimp species are: Scarlet Skunk Cleaner Shrimp, Large Bright Red Fire Shrimp, Coral Banded Shrimp, Camel Shrimp, and Pederson Shrimp.
Large Tonga Nassarius Snails
In addition to being an integral part of a regular cleaning crew, some snails are also good at cleaning troublesome outbreaks such as red or brown slime or hairy varieties of algae. Peaceful animals, they spend their days munching on algae and sifting sand (which also helps to aerate your substrate). The Tiger Sand Conch, Astrea Snails, Banded Trochus Snails, Zebra Striped Turbo Snails, and Large Tonga Nassarius Snails are all perfect varieties to choose for reef tanks.
Fromia Sea Star
While this is not an animal that comes immediately to mind when choosing a cleanup crew, a starfish is an efficient and hardworking cleaner. Some varieties are also good sand sifters, in addition to being a pretty addition to the tank. In general, all brittle stars and serpent stars are reef-safe. Other choices include the Fromia Sea Star, Feather Starfish, Red Bali Star, Linckia Stars, and Orange Sea Star.
Bright Red Flame Scallop
While scallops do not perform tank janitorial duties, they certainly deserve a mention for being an attractive invertebrate that poses no threat to coral or fish. Two readily available scallops are the Bright Red Flame Scallop and Electric Flame Scallops. These animals are very hard to care for, so please use caution and do your homework to keep these successfully.
Please keep in mind that there are individual differences within any animal species. The fish and invertebrates mentioned above will give you a general guideline when choosing reef-safe tank inhabitants, but rogue members exist in every species. If a specific animal in your tank suddenly decides they would like a little coral crudit, remove immediately before any more damage can be inflicted.