The Vampire shrimp (Atya gabonensis), also known as Giant African filter shrimp, or Gabon shrimp and viper shrimp, is a collector’s favorite. Don’t let the name frighten you! Vampire shrimp are a type of fan shrimp.
Vampires are relatively large shrimp, growing to about six inches (15 cm) when fully mature. But this large shrimp with a menacing name is not aggressive!
Colors range from whitish to gray-blue. Tan is common but red and pink specimens are sometimes seen. Their shell (carapace) has deep grooves and wrinkles, adding character to their appearance. They use filter-feeding fans (chelipeds) to capture tiny plankton in the water.
The shrimp can live up to five years. Vampire shrimp are very interesting to watch but require special care to remain healthy.
Vampire shrimp are native to West Africa (Senegal to Republic of the Congo region) and South America (Venezuela to Brazil). Their natural habitat is swift-moving streams with a rocky bottom.
The shrimp cling to rocks while using their feathery front claws to capture tiny particles of food. The fan-like claws work like nets, catching floating plankton like bacteria, crustaceans and algae. The fans, full of food, are brought to the shrimp’s mouth to eat.
Vampire shrimp are edible and have been harvested in small quantities by local fisherman. Because the shrimp are small relative to other types of “food fish,” a lot are required for a meal. You won’t see Vampire shrimp on the menu unless you travel to where they’re harvested.
Vampire shrimp have a personality similar to crayfish. The shrimp likes to have a place to call home. A cave is a favorite niche environment that experience Vampire-keepers recommend.
The shrimp likes to retreat to the cave when frightened or when it wants to relax during the day. Several shrimp can share the same cave.
Use a small-size gravel scattered with pebbles or a few rocks. The shrimp don’t like bare-bottom aquariums. There’s nothing for their claws to grab onto, so they can’t get traction.
A 10-gallon aquarium is recommended for keeping a group of 5 to 6 Vampire shrimp. You can certainly keep the shrimp in a larger aquarium, but they like the same conditions. Experienced aquarists report seeing their Vampires turn red or orange. It may be the dominant male that changes color when kept in a group.
Atya gabonensis will climb on rocks and other structures, waving their chelipeds in the water flow. Live plants look natural and promote an accurate biotope. The plants create a microenvironment that supports the growth of microscopic food for the filter-feeding shrimp. Plastic plants can be used if you don’t want to care for aquatic plants.
Vampire shrimp can be kept in a wide pH range of 6.5 to 7.5. Water hardness and alkalinity (carbonate hardness) in a range of 3 to 10 degrees is acceptable to the Vampires and many other shrimp.
Keep the KH level at a minimum of 3 degrees to prevent the pH from dropping below pH 6.5. If you’re using reverse osmosis or distilled water, be sure to add some tap water to the tank to add carbonates and water hardness.
Ammonia and nitrite are toxic to shrimp must be kept at zero levels. Reduce feeding if levels ever rise above zero.
Nitrate, the end-product of the biological filtration, should be no higher than 20 ppm. Make partial water changes every month to remove nitrate. Water changes also dilute phosphate and silicate, which can stimulate too much algae growth.
Tap water and Vampire shrimp
Like all shrimp, Vampires are poisoned by heavy metals. Copper is an essential nutritional element and used in the shrimp’s blood to carry oxygen (hemocyanins). But at certain levels it can be toxic. Avoid using copper-based algaecides and medications with Vampire shrimp. Your tap water may contain copper that dissolved from copper plumbing.
If you have copper pipes, flush the faucet for one minute before using the water. This eliminates the copper that leaches into the standing water.
Chlorine and chloramine disinfects are added to most municipal water sources. Chlorinated water is poisonous to Vampire shrimp.
Aerating the water or letting it stand overnight will not eliminate chloramine. Unlike chlorine, chloramine is stable and won’t evaporate into the air. Use a water conditioner that detoxifies heavy metals and neutralizes chlorine and chloramine.
Vampire shrimp and water temperature
Vampire shrimp don’t like the cooler temperatures some shrimp can tolerate. Dwarf shrimp are usually kept at a cooler temperature to reduce molting and prolong their lifespan. But the Vampire shrimp thrives are more tropical water temperatures.
Keep the water in the range of 75-85°F. (24-30°C). Use an aquarium heater to prevent the aquarium water from getting too cool.
Vampire Shrimp Water Chemistry Conditions
|pH:||6.5 – 7.5|
|General or Total hardness:||5 – 10 degrees|
|Alkalinity or carbonate hardness:||3 – 10 degrees|
|Water temperature:||75 – 85°F (24 – 30°C)|
|Ammonia & Nitrite:||0.0|
Water filtration for Vampire shrimp
Atya gabonensis are large, filter-feeding shrimp. Vampire shrimp thrive in strong water currents. They depend on water currents to bring particles of food to them, for capture in the fans. For smaller aquariums (10-20 gallons) a hang-on-back (HOB) filter will provide enough current.
An external power filter will supply water flow and keep the water clear. The filter cartridges contain activated carbon, which will adsorb organics that discolor the water.
The filter pad will remove large particles to maintain water clarity. The aquarium water does not have to be completely “polished” to crystal clarity. Vampires are filter feeders and depend on free-floating plankton for food.
Need more water movement?
All-in-one nano aquariums are great for shrimp and plants. But if the filter pump can’t supply enough flow for the shrimp, consider using a tiny powerhead. Made for nano reef aquariums, today’s tiny flow pumps are perfect for adding water movement in a small tank.
Traditional powerheads have a narrow flow pattern that creates high-velocity water flow that may be too strong. The nano water flow pumps create a widespread flow pattern that mimics stream flow.
Vampire shrimp have larger claws than other dwarf shrimp. They can grip more tightly onto rocks and driftwood and withstand stronger water flow across their body.
Aquarium lighting for Vampire shrimp
Vampire shrimp enjoy a mix of shade and direct lighting. Live plants will thrive under full-spectrum lighting and provide “dappled” light along the bottom of the substrate. This mimics the sunlight passing through trees that overhang the shrimp’s natural habitat.
If you’re using plastic plants, the shrimp tank can be dimly lit. Some shrimp-keepers say their Vampires only come out at night. A LED aquarium light with a “moonlight” feature will create a dim, soft light so you can watch your shrimp feed and explore the aquarium.
Other aquarists have Vampires that are constantly on the move during the day. One thing is true for all shrimp. They don’t like to be startled by lights suddenly turning on and off. Look for LED aquarium lights have an automatic sunrise and sunset feature.
Aquascaping for Vampire shrimp
Every Vampire shrimp seems to have its own personality. Some Vampires are show-offs that love to stand on a stump or driftwood, waving their fans. Others like to retreat into a cave, venturing out in the evenings.
You may even see several shrimp sharing a cave. There is no end to the interesting behavior of Vampire shrimp. Use plants, rocks, driftwood and one or more caves in their aquarium. Vampires like cling to a rock or piece of driftwood while filter feeding.
The shrimp periodically molt as they grow. After molting the shrimp will be soft and vulnerable. A cave is essential for protection until the shrimp’s exoskeleton hardens up.
Vampire shrimp are excellent climbers and have a tremendous curiosity. Aquarists have observed the shrimp climbing up aquarium heaters and looking around at the water surface. There is a good chance a curious shrimp could climb out of the aquarium and fall to the floor.
In nature, the shrimp could explore a stream band then walk back to the water. Falling out of the aquarium is a death sentence. A glass or screen cover may be necessary. One tip is to keep plants, heaters and drift wood below the water surface, so shrimp can’t reach the aquarium edge.
Aquascaping essentials for Vampire shrimp:
- Fine gravel substrate
- Pebbles or stones scattered in the aquarium
- Driftwood or stump
- Caves for hiding
- Live or plastic plants
- Optional glass top
Fan shrimp are filter-feeders. The only know how to feed on microscopic foods like zooplankton, algae and bacteria. Your Vampire shrimp will use their fans to capture microscopic food as it floats by in the water current. Traditional pellet foods, even those made for shrimp, are too large for Vampires.
The best approach is to allow the aquarium to have a little algae growth on the rear glass. This is the start of the microscopic food chain and will provide a source of live food for the shrimp. Clumps of java moss and live plants also help to increase the amount of planktonic live foods in the tank.
You can also use powdered coral food. Just put a small pinch into the water flow. It helps to wet the food for a minute or two before adding it to the aquarium. Newly hatched brine shrimp are also a favorite.
Shrimp experts recommend feeding Vampires every two or three days. Microscopic foods are difficult to see in the aquarium. It is easy to add too much because it is mostly invisible in the water. This could lead to water quality problems.
Be sure to test for ammonia and nitrite every week until you see that the feeding regimen is not overpowering the biological filter. You may consider removing the filter cartridge (HOB filter) while feeding. This will keep the food particles circulating for a few hours. Replace the filter cartridge after the shrimp has had time to feed.
Vampire shrimp compatibility
Vampire shrimp are gentle and non-aggressive. They are compatible with many other shrimp:
Vampire shrimp can be kept with most non-aggressive tropical fish. Platys, tetras, mollies, swordtails and siamese algae eaters are just a few of the fish that get along with these friendly shrimp.
Larger cichlids and fish known to bully will try to eat or enticed to peck any shrimp, especially fan shrimp.
Plants and caves help give the shrimp a hide-out if a fish gets too interested in the Vampire’s fans and feeding behavior. It has been reported that if a fish continually nips at the shrimp’s fans, the shrimp will keep the fans closed. This means the Vampire shrimp is not feeding.
Often, if a certain fish is obsessed with a shrimp, it will hound the vampire every time she comes out of her cave. Even if more cover is added to the aquarium, the “bully” fish will hunt down the shrimp. It may be necessary to remove the problem fish to bring peace and harmony to the aquarium.
Breeding Vampire shrimp
Atya gabonensis requires fresh and saltwater to complete its life cycle. This is called Amphidromy. In nature, Vampires will breed in freshwater streams.
The shrimp larva hatch but must have exposure to saltwater to mature. The young shrimp drift downstream to the sea, mature, then make their way back up the stream to repeat the lifecycle. This is very difficult to duplicate in the aquarium.
There has been only one report of at-home spawning and successful rearing of Vampire shrimp. No other accounts of success are known. There are no reliable reports of successful captive commercial breeding of Vampire shrimp. All Vampire shrimps sold in the aquarium trade are wild-caught.
Vampire are large, active shrimp that are compatible with many tropical fish. It’s a great addition to shrimp-only aquariums since Vampires get along with most other dwarf and fan shrimp. Their unique personality and color-changing potential make Vampire shrimp an ideal shrimp for the experienced shrimp-keeper.
Victoria Nelson is a lifelong animal lover. She grew up in a small farm with a wide variety of pets that included dogs, cats, cows, fish etc. A published author since 18, she loves writing, and nothing makes her happier than writing about animals and sharing useful animal care tips.