Pistol Shrimp Care Guide: Diet, Size, Punch & Power

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Pop! That was the noise from Pistol Shrimp hunting its next prey. These small creatures are capable of very powerful noises known to be louder than most gunshots. This and other interesting facts are shared in this care guide designed for you to learn more about this amazing shrimp. 

Species Summary

Pistol Shrimp are evolutionary marvels that inhabit tropical and temperate coastal waters worldwide. These small invertebrates are members of the Alpheidae family, which includes hundreds of species. Their namesake trait is the specialized claw that acts as a pressurized water gun, enabling these well-adapted carnivores to stun prey during their hunts.

These crustaceans live in coral reefs, oyster reefs, and seagrass flats. The shrimp are burrowers that spend most of their time hiding when not roving the floor in search of food. While most species share the same behaviors and traits, verify your shrimp’s identity with your vendor. Certain species are more territorial and aggressive than others, making them poor cohabitants with other crustaceans and fish. This behavior is similar to the Harlequin Shrimp since it is also territorial and aggressive with other species of shrimp, including harlequins of the same sex.

Appearance

The common trait of all Pistol Shrimp is two varying-sized claws, a pincer and a snapper. The pincer is similar to the claws of other shrimp. The snapper is about half the length of the Pistol’s body. It features two parts, the propus, which fills with water, and the dactyl, which functions like a plunger by moving into the propus. The resulting pressure expels a blast, creating an air bubble and snapping noise.

Author Note: Either the left or right claw can develop as the snapper. Interestingly, the pincer can change into a snapper if the shrimp loses its specialized appendage in an attack or accident.

These shrimp feature antennae, two black eyes at the top of their head, and six legs along the underside of their abdomen. Their coloration depends on species, but most shrimp are red, brown, blue, green, white, or a blend of colors and sometimes feature striking patterns.

Lifespan

Pistol Shrimp has a lifespan of about four years. They are relatively affordable reef fish and make a solid choice for beginner aquarists because they are easy to feed and only require standard care.

Average Size

One would think this shrimp is quite big given how powerful it is but the average size of a pistol shrimp is just 1 to 2 inches long. Males are noticeably larger than females and have a more prominent snapping claw.

Pistol Shrimp Care

Pistol Shrimp care is fairly simple since they are reef-safe and diligent borrowers, making them a valuable addition because they will turn over the substrate, helping to circulate oxygen through the tank. Unless threatened or deprived of adequate space in the substrate, they are not a threat to other fish.

Tank Size

If you get a pistol shrimp make sure the tank size is 30 gallons or more because they require at least 4 inches of substrate. These crustaceans are active borrowers, adapted to tunneling in the wild for safety and security. While sand is acceptable, crushed coral is better because it is easier for the shrimp to burrow horizontally through the rougher material. 

Author Note: If you plan to keep more than one Pistol, a larger tank is needed to ensure each shrimp has enough space to dig. They are highly territorial with members of the same species.

Water Parameters

  • Water temperature: 75°F to 82°F
  • pH levels: 6.5 to 7.5
  • Water hardness: 8 to 12 dKH
  • Specific gravity: 1.024 to 1.026 sg

What To Put In Their Tank

The shrimp will spend much of its time under the tank floor, so hiding spots and vegetation are unnecessary. Be sure the tank features adequate loose rock and coral pieces that shrimp can use for building. The shrimp will use these small materials to fortify the complex tunnels they create.

Additionally, be sure your large rock and coral beds are well-stabilized. Pistol Shrimp create vast networks that could compromise the foundation of your rock if it rests on too much sand or crushed coral. A potential collapse could damage your coral or crush your Pistol.

Common Possible Diseases

While these shrimp are not particularly vulnerable to disease, they are highly susceptible to copper. Refrain from using tank additives and move fish that require treatments containing copper to a separate tank.

Author Note: Like their fellow invertebrates, Pistol Shrimp are sensitive to nitrate buildup. Be sure to follow a consistent schedule for water changes and remove decaying fish and other organic matter.

Food & Diet

Wild Pistol Shrimp are carnivorous and active scavengers, they eat decaying fish and plant material. Their adapted claw shocks and stuns prey. Fortunately, they will accept flakes, pellets, and defrosted frozen foods when kept in a tank. Usually, providing a small piece of fish, brine shrimp, mussel, scallop, or squid two or three times per week is adequate.

Experts recommend placing the food at the entrance to their burrow. If hungry, your shrimp will bring it underground. Otherwise, they will push it away. Monitoring feedings is critical. Pistols will hunt invertebrates in your tank if not adequately fed.

Behavior & Temperament

Despite their imposing natural weaponry, Pistol Shrimp are usually shy and docile. They are nocturnal creatures who keep to their tunnel system unless they need to hunt or scavenge for food.

While the specialized claw is a hunting tool, the shrimp also relies on the snapping sound for defense from predators. When you hear the characteristic “pop,” it likely means your shrimp feels threatened. Depending on the species of your shrimp, the sound can reach 210 decibels, which is louder than most gunshots.

Author Note:  Just for reference, if you search online “gunshots decibels” you will find that a small .22-caliber rifle can produce about 140 dB, while big-bore rifles and pistols produce over 175 dB.  

Pistol Shrimp Tank Mates and Partners

Beyond their unique anatomy, pistol shrimp pair well with gobies (like the Mandarin Goby) due to their symbiotic relationship. Pistols are essentially blind, limiting their ability to detect predators. Gobies love hiding spaces in the substrate.

These two species form a mutually beneficial relationship. The goby gains access to the intricate tunnel system while the shrimp keeps close to the goby, which alerts it of nearby threats. To communicate, the shrimp rests its antennae on the fish, which flaps its fins to signal the shrimp. In addition, the crustacean sometimes grabs morsels of food discarded when the goby feeds. A Pistol can also help keep your goby calm because both fish are relatively shy, and a goby cannot thrive without adequate hiding spaces.

Author Note: Buying the shrimp and goby together and acclimating them to your aquarium in the same bag or isolation tank maximizes the chance of the pair bonding. When selecting your shrimp and goby, verify that each species is open to the symbiotic relationship.

Pistol Shrimp also do well with other small, non-aggressive fish and sponges. Your shrimp will keep to itself as long as its nutritional needs are satisfied and no one invades its territory.

Avoid housing Pistol Shrimp with groupers, hawkfish, lionfish, puffers, triggers, and mantis shrimp because they may feed on your Pistol. In addition, bottom-dwelling fish, other shrimp, crabs, and snails may stumble upon the burrow opening, leading to a possible confrontation.

While there are countless species of Pistol Shrimp, and some may even make their way to your tank through live rock or sand purchases, the most popular are sold mainly for their striking colors.

  • The Tiger Pistol Shrimp, known scientifically as Alpheus bellulus, is the most commonly raised Pistol Shrimp. They have white bodies and intricate reddish-brown patterns. Distinct purple markings accent their legs. Tiger Pistols pair well with gobies.
  • The Randall’s Shrimp, or better known as Alpheus randalli, are whitish-colored and striped with uneven red rings across their body and claws. They also form bonds with gobies. The Golden Pistol Shrimp, which is not a classified species, is yellow-colored with faint stripes running the length of its body and a white ring near the tail end of the thorax.
  • The Bullseye Shrimp, also known as Alpheus soror, has an orangish pink color with stark black splotches on each side of its tail. This species has purple claws. Bullseyes will not associate with gobies.
  • The Red Caribbean Pistol Shrimp, or Alpheus sp, is one of the more aggressive species. They have red bodies with white accent markings and purplish legs. Rather than bonding with gobies, they forge a similar symbiotic relationship with Curlycue Anemones.

Breeding

Breeding Pistol Shrimp is challenging due to their territoriality toward each other and the relative vulnerability of the larva. They form monogamous bonds and mate repeatedly. Females reproduce after each molt cycle when they are highly vulnerable to attack due to their lack of an exoskeleton. The mate protects the female during this phase. In exchange, the male can repeatedly mate without searching for new females.

Females lay between a few hundred and thousands of eggs, depending on the species. She will carry the legs under her abdomen. Eggs hatch 28 days after fertilization. The larva then completes three molt periods over the next 78 to 102 hours. They will then reach their shrimplet phase and begin scavenging for food as they grow larger, reaching adulthood.

The best way to successfully breed the shrimp is to buy two Pistols together and introduce them to the tank as a unit. This familiarity maximizes the odds they will pair off and share tunnels. Securing the largest possible male with a sizeable claw will increase the odds of the female being receptive.

Closing Thoughts

We think the Pistol Shrimp would be a great addition to your saltwater tank as long as you are willing to give it some privacy due to its territorial behavior. 

If you are ready to move forward with this crustacean or if you already did, let us know how it is going since we love hearing stories from our readers! 

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