How to Care for an Algae Eater

By Catherine Holden Robinson

If your aquarium inhabitants could order a maid service, their first call might be be to an algae eater. Algae most often form in an aquarium when uneaten food generates ammonia and phosphate. Manual algae removal is an unpleasant process, but algae eaters are happy to do the job for you, and they're easy to care for if you know what kind of algae eaters you're introducing into your ecosystem.

River flowing over algae covered rocks
When your water's this color, it's long past time to get an algae eater.
credit: GYRO PHOTOGRAPHY/amanaimagesRF/amana images/Getty Images

Care Specific to Type

When it comes to algae eaters, one size doesn't fit all. There are six types of common algae eaters, and care is specific to the type of algae eater you add to your existing aquarium. Don't add an algae eater to your aquarium without speaking with an experienced aquarist. The size of your existing tank will help determine what type of algae eater you should add. Regardless of the algae eater you choose, you should add the specimen last to your aquarium, as all algae eaters can be somewhat territorial. Adding your algae eater last can help avoid this aggressive behavior.

Housing the Plecos

The plecostamus or "pleco," is a prehistoric-looking algae eater available in three varieties, for three different tank sizes and and setups. The common pleco is a voracious eater who will uproot plants, can grow to a whopping 2 feet in length and is best housed in a 50-gallon tank. Common plecos need an additional food source such as algae wafers or raw vegetation to avoid their dining on the slime on the bodies of tank mates. Rubber lip plecos top out at only 3 to 5 inches, are plant friendly and can be housed in a smaller tank as long as it's greater than 10 gallons in size. This timid fish needs hiding places and does well in an aquarium with less-aggressive tank mates. The bristle-nose pleco will reach a maximum size of 4 to 8 inches and should live in a tank larger than 20 gallons that has plenty of driftwood to assist in the bristle-nose's dietary needs and help reduce aggression toward other aquarium inhabitants.

The Siamese and Chinese Algae Eaters

The Siamese algae eater is the only consumer of red algae. To afford a proper habitat to these fish, an aquarium should house significant plant life. Siamese algae eaters thrive in either communities of their own species, or in pairs. The Chinese algae eaters are less effective in that they are not recommended for community tanks and only consume algae until they reach 6 inches in length. Once this occurs, a Chinese algae eater will prowl the tank for additional food sources, such as dead fish and regular fish food. Both Siamese and Chinese algae eaters can grow to maximum size of approximately 8 inches, and both are most comfortable in a tank of 20 gallons.

Small Tank Dwellers

For the small tank enthusiast, the Otocinclus or oto is the most appropriate choice. The oto is especially susceptible to poor water quality, which can cause greater distress in a tank with less water volume. Water changes should be frequent. Groups of otos can be housed together, and they thrive with other fish in the tank. As with the Chinese and Siamese algae eaters, otos need a supplemental food source such as algae wafers or fresh vegetables clipped to the inside of the aquarium.