Harlequin Shrimp

Harlequin Shrimp

The Harlequin Shrimp (Hymenocera picta) is a captivating and strikingly beautiful crustacean that makes a fantastic addition to any marine aquarium. Known for their vibrant colors and intricate patterns, these shrimp are highly-specialized predators that feed exclusively on starfish. In this comprehensive guide, we’ll delve into the unique characteristics, behaviors, and care requirements of the Harlequin Shrimp, providing you with all the information you need to successfully keep and care for these fascinating creatures.


Harlequin Shrimp are a popular choice for marine aquarium enthusiasts due to their striking appearance and fascinating behaviors. Despite their small size, these shrimp are highly-adapted predators with a specialized diet that primarily consists of starfish. This unique aspect of their biology has made them a subject of fascination for many aquarists. However, their specific dietary needs and sensitivity to water quality make them a challenging species to keep for the inexperienced hobbyist.

Physical Characteristics

Harlequin Shrimp typically grow to a maximum size of 2 inches (5 centimeters) in length. Their bodies are covered in a vibrant pattern of blue, white, and purple spots and bands, which serves as both camouflage in their natural environment and a warning to potential predators. The shrimp’s large, flat claws are used for handling and manipulating their starfish prey, while their antennae are used for detecting the scent of their preferred food source.

Habitat and Distribution

Harlequin Shrimp are primarily found in the tropical waters of the Indo-Pacific region, from the Red Sea and the eastern coast of Africa to Hawaii, Japan, and Australia. They inhabit coral reef environments, where they are often found hiding under rocks and crevices during the day. At night, they emerge to hunt for their preferred prey, starfish.


The Hunt

The hunting behavior of Harlequin Shrimp is a fascinating aspect of their biology. These shrimp have sensitive antennae that they use to detect the scent of starfish. Once they have located a suitable target, they will approach it cautiously and, if working in a mated pair, attack it in unison. Starfish are slow-moving and rely on their suction-cup-like tube feet to hold onto surfaces and move around. Harlequin Shrimp take advantage of this by using their claws to flip the starfish over, effectively immobilizing it and leaving it vulnerable to consumption.

Escape Artists

When faced with a Harlequin Shrimp attack, starfish have few defenses at their disposal. Their primary strategy for escaping predation is to detach a limb and attempt to flee while it regenerates. However, this tactic leaves them vulnerable to further attacks and can be an ineffective deterrent against the persistent Harlequin Shrimp. Additionally, starfish possess a poisonous toxin that they release to deter predators. However, Harlequin Shrimp appear to be immune to this toxin and may even absorb it to use as a defense mechanism against other potential threats.

Related: Gold Nugget Pleco: An Eye-Catching Freshwater Fish

Mating and Reproduction

Harlequin Shrimp form monogamous pairs, with the male and female working together to hunt and feed on starfish. During the mating process, the male will transfer a sperm packet to the female, which she will then use to fertilize her eggs. The female will carry the fertilized eggs on her abdomen until they are ready to hatch, at which point the larvae will emerge and begin their life as planktonic organisms before eventually settling onto the reef and developing into adult shrimp.


The Perfect Meal

Harlequin Shrimp have a highly specialized diet that consists almost exclusively of starfish. They are known to eat a variety of starfish species, with the Chocolate Chip Starfish (Protoreaster nodosus) being a popular choice for feeding captive Harlequin Shrimp due to its relatively low cost and availability. Other suitable options for feeding your Harlequin Shrimp include the parasitic Asterina Starfish, which can be a problematic pest in reef aquariums. It’s important to note that Harlequin Shrimp generally avoid feeding on Brittle Starfish (Ophiuroidea) unless other food sources are scarce.

Meal Size

The amount of starfish required to sustain a Harlequin Shrimp will depend on the size of the shrimp and whether it is being kept individually or as part of a mated pair. In general, a medium-sized starfish can provide enough sustenance for a single Harlequin Shrimp for one to two weeks. To extend the duration between feedings, some aquarists opt to keep starfish in a separate tank and offer individual limbs to the shrimp, allowing the starfish time to regenerate the missing limb if properly cared for.

Tank Requirements

Harlequin Shrimp require a stable and well-established reef aquarium with plenty of hiding spots and live rock for them to explore. A tank size of at least 20 gallons (75 liters) is recommended for a single shrimp or mated pair. It’s essential to provide ample hiding spaces in the form of rocks, caves, and crevices, as Harlequin Shrimp prefer to remain hidden during the day and often retreat to secluded areas to consume their prey.

Water Parameters

Maintaining optimal water quality is crucial for the health and well-being of your Harlequin Shrimp. They are sensitive to fluctuations in water parameters and require stable conditions to thrive. The following water parameters should be maintained for a healthy Harlequin Shrimp aquarium:

  • Temperature: 72-78°F (22-25°C)
  • Salinity: 1.023-1.025 specific gravity
  • pH: 8.1-8.4
  • Ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate levels should be kept as close to 0 ppm as possible

It’s essential to perform regular water tests and changes to maintain these parameters and ensure a healthy environment for your shrimp.

Tank Mates

When choosing tank mates for your Harlequin Shrimp, it’s important to consider their peaceful nature and specialized diet. They generally get along well with other peaceful invertebrates, such as snails, hermit crabs, and smaller species of shrimp. However, they should not be housed with aggressive or predatory species, including larger shrimp, crabs, and fish, that may view them as a potential food source.

Additionally, due to their exclusive diet of starfish, it’s essential to ensure that your Harlequin Shrimp has a consistent supply of suitable food without causing harm to other starfish species that may be part of your reef aquarium.


Breeding Harlequin Shrimp in captivity is a challenging endeavor due to the specific care requirements of the larvae. As mentioned earlier, Harlequin Shrimp form monogamous pairs, and the female will carry fertilized eggs on her abdomen until they are ready to hatch. The newly-hatched larvae are planktonic and require specialized food sources, such as newly-hatched brine shrimp, copepods, or rotifers. They will also require stable water conditions and a separate rearing tank to ensure their survival and development into adult shrimp.


Harlequin Shrimp are a stunning and unique addition to any marine aquarium, with their vibrant colors and fascinating behaviors. However, their specialized diet and sensitivity to water quality make them a challenging species to keep for inexperienced hobbyists. With proper care, a stable reef environment, and a consistent supply of starfish, these captivating crustaceans can thrive and provide endless fascination and enjoyment for their keepers.

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