Aquarium Cleaning Fish: Types | Species | Lifespan | Size | Care

Whilst algae is one of the signs that your aquarium is healthy you do not want too much of it. It spoils the aesthetics unless you like the ‘Creature from the Black Lagoon’ look and can cause problems with your water parameters.

In order to keep algae levels down and prevent it from taking over, there are several measures you can take. These include managing nitrate levels by performing frequent water changes and keeping your aquarium out of direct sunlight.

It is also possible, and this is the really easy way, to help keep algae levels down by simply adding aquarium cleaning fish. They will not negate the need for the additional methods already mentioned but they will contribute to their success. Some of the best aquarium cleaning fish are as follows:

Here’s some of the best aquarium cleaning fish:

  • Otocinclus Catfish
  • African Cichlids
  • Whiptail Catfish
  • American Flagfish
  • Bristlenose Plecos
  • Siamese Flying Fox
  • Livebearers
  • Snails
  • Shrimps

Otocinclus Catfish

Many catfish make good cleaners Oto’s are definitely one of the best

Commonly known as the Oto this catfish can work wonders on algae quickly grazing it down. They are bottom dwellers who prefer to be in groups and will tend to stick together. Oto’s work by clearing one area of algae before moving onto another.

Oto’s require an aquarium around the size of 30 gallons that has plenty of driftwood and leafy litter. They reach around 2 inches in length and come in a variety of colors and patterns and live on average for around 4-5 years. They are a peaceful community fish that will play well with most others. They do not, however, mix well with large cichlids.

African Cichlids

African Cichlids are excellent cleaning fish

Speaking of Cichlids, you may be surprised to learn that certain species from Lake Malawi and Tanganyika feed on algae constantly in their natural environment. This makes them also ideal aquarium cleaners for the home tank.

Any member of the Lake Malawi Labeotropheus family would be perfect, whilst the rock-dwelling Malawi Mbuna is also efficient. From Lake Tanganyika, there are a group of ten or more Tropheus, a colorful collection, that even need algae in their diets.

These fish come in all shapes and sizes ranging from 2″ – 10″ some can live for up to 20 years in captivity.

African Cichlids from Lake Malawi & Lake Tanganyika make great cleaners

Twig Catfish/Whiptail Catfish

Royal Farlowella Catfish (Sturistoma sp.)

The Twig Catfish is not exactly the most exciting of algae eating fish but they are efficient and interesting. They rarely swim, preferring to hop from spot to spot and will not react even when captured by predators. This is in the hopes that they will be confused for a twig and released.

At a maximum size of four inches and with an elongated brown body that makes them camouflage, they do indeed resemble a twig. A twig that is resting up against the glass, attached by its strong sucker mouth. Twig Catfish require an aquarium of around 12 gallons for a pair with moderately soft water.

These fish live on average 6-7 years and grow to 5-7″ max

American Flagfish

american flagfish
American Flagfish

If you specifically have a hair algae problem in your aquarium, then the American Flagfish is the cleaner for you. They are mega attractive with their red, blue, and green coloration that, as their name suggests, reminds one of the star-spangled banner. At 2.5 inches they are not the largest of fish but they certainly do shine. They require an aquarium of at least 10 gallons per specimen. They live on average 3-4 years in captivity.

A temperate and hardy Killifish from Florida, the American Flagfish can be a little temperamental and odd in behavior. They are, however, a great addition to community aquariums as long as they have space to swim.

Bristlenose Pleco

Smaller Than A Regular Pleco But Still A Great Cleaner Fish

There are many Plecos you could choose when it comes to algae eating. However, the Bristlenose Pleco is one of the smallest and hence suitable for most tanks. They grow to around 5 inches in length and require an aquarium of 20 to 25 gallons. They have a lifespan of around 5-6 years, not as long as their bigger brother the Plecostomus catfish that have been known to live up to 15-20 years.

Recognizable by the tentacle-like branches that protrude from their faces, the Bristlenose Pleco could not exactly be classed as good looking. They are, however, interesting to watch as they slow graze the bottom of their tank.

Suitable for most community aquariums the Bristlenose Pleco is a popular choice amongst aquarists. This is partly due to how easy they are to care for and partly for their cleaning abilities.

Siamese Flying Fox

Flying fox
Flying fox, often mistaken for the Siamese Algae eater. Notice no stripe in the tail fin.

A handsome and robust fish, the Siamese Flying Fox has an olive to dark brown upper body with a yellowish to white lower half. They reach around 6.5 inches and require an aquarium of at least 20 gallons.

Compatible with most aquarium fish other than the Red Tail Shark, the Siamese Flying Fox will eat algae from glass, plants, and decor. Additionally, they will also take care of most leftover food. You should, however, take care when keeping them with other Siamese Flying Foxes as they can be territorial.

These fish can live a good long life in an aquarium and on average live for around 5-7 years in captivity and grow to a maximum size of 6″

Live Bearing Fish

Livebearers Make Great Cleaning Fish

Though they may not feed on algae alone, or even as much as other fish, livebearers will graze on it from time to time. This makes them, not exactly the first choice when it comes to picking aquarium cleaners but certainly a fairly efficient one.

Livebearers include all sorts of wonderfully colored and patterned species including the Molly, the Swordtail, and the Guppy. Each one of these fish are peaceful and good for community aquariums of around 20 gallons plus in size. You should bear in mind, however, that livebearers reproduce quickly and can quickly overrun your tank.

These fish vary in size and live on average 4-5 years and the average size of a livebearer is 2-3″

An Honorable Mention For Other Aquarium Cleaning Heroes

Though they are definitely not fish there are a few other aquarium dwellers that deserve an honorary mention when it comes to cleaning. They are small, tiny in fact, in comparison to many algae eating fish, but in many cases more efficient.

Snails and shrimp are a great hassle free way of cleaning algae from your aquarium. Just pop them in and leave them to it. They come in a good range of varieties suitable for all tanks and best of all do not have any effect on your bio load.

Freshwater Aquarium Snails
Freshwater Snails Make Great Cleaners Read all about them here!

Snail variety suggestions include the Trumpet snail, Ramshorn snail, Nerite snail, and Rabbit snail.

Shrimp variety suggestions include the Amano shrimp, Cherry shrimp, and Ghost shrimp.

Conclusion: Best Aquarium Cleaning Fish

In the interests of keeping algae levels down, it would be fair to say that every aquarium would benefit from an aquarium cleaning fish, or hero. However, which fish or hero that should be will vary.

There is no one size of algae eater that fits all aquariums, but there is one for every aquarium out there! These fish do not stop the need for water changes or regular aquarium cleaning but they do help.

If you’re just starting out and would like some advice on how to set up your aquarium or which fish are best for beginners we have included a short list of helpful articles below. Enjoy!

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