Opae Ula, also known as Hawaiian Red Shrimp, Super Shrimp, or Volcano Shrimp, are a species of small shrimp native to Hawaii. They are considered as one of the easiest pets and make for surprisingly good entertainment. As a matter of fact, once your tank is set up, you don’t have to do anything for months or even years. No feeding, no water changes, no cleaning. Just watch them go about their business, reproduce, shed their skin and so on.
Opae Ula are very hardy and can live in a variety of conditions, making them ideal for kids. Let’s look at their characteristics a bit more in detail:
What makes Opae Ula so easy to take care of?
The Volcano Shrimp is native to the Hawaiian islands and makes a living by filter feeding algae from ponds of brackish water. The salinity as well as the temperature in these ponds can vary widely, something that the Super Shrimp is well adapted to. Temperature variations from 40 to 90 degree and little to no food for weeks will do little to adversely affect the health of these amazing creatures. Still, you might wonder, no food for for a couple of weeks is one thing, but years? That’s not possible! Well, technically you are right about that, but in a different way then you may assume. Let me introduce you to the concept of Ecospheres.
Ecospheres are enclosed environments that have all the ingredients to sustain life within an ecosystem. In the case of our Opae Ula, the Ecosphere (typically a glass container with one to two gallons of volume) contains salt water with a carefully measured amount of nutrients, a substrate such as sand or rocks, algae and other microorganisms, and of course, our Super Shrimp.
Life in the Ecosphere is sustained by sunlight, that algae use to reproduce. Algae, in turn, is consumed by our Hawaiian friends whereas shrimp excrement is turned into algae-sustaining fertilizer by microorganisms. It’s a beautiful circle of life that, in many ways, is all around us. Therefore, setting up an Ecoshere for your Super Shrimp can be a wonderful teaching tool for kids and adults alike.
To set up an Ecosphere with Hawaiian Red Shrimp, you need to obtain the following items:
- A glass container that can be closed to prevent evaporation. It should have at least 2 liters or 1/2 gal of volume to provide adequate space. The smaller your shrimp tank, the fewer shrimp it can sustain. The 2 liter container can accommodate no more than approximately 10-15 Opae Ula, whereas 4 liters can sustain up to 30 shrimp. A cookie jar such as this would do nicely
- Aquarium sand. It acts as a substrate (surface area) for those microorganisms, that will convert shrimp poop into something that algae can use as nutrients (nitrite to nitrate conversion). Additionally, it will serve as a bed for some lava rock.
- Lava Rock for decorative purposes and to create some hiding places for your shrimp.
- Aquarium salt and deionized (RO) or distilled water. Don’t use regular cooking salt, it doesn’t have the necessary trace minerals necessary for a balanced shrimp tank.
- Sustainably sourced Hawaiian Red Shrimp. A good shop to buy from can be found by clicking here. This online shop also offers a green macro-algae for decorative purposes as well. However, if your goal is to create an Ecosphere, I recommend avoiding these decorative forms of algae. The problem is that these decorative green macro-algae will compete with the necessary micro-algae in your Ecosophere by consuming a lot of the nutrients. The result will be that the micro-algae you need to feed your shrimp won’t get enough nutrients to grow and your Opae Ula will starve and possibly die. Therefore, stay away from any decorative algae or other plants if you goal is to have self-sustaining Opae Ula Ecosphere.
- One finely crushed egg shell as a source for additional calcium.
- A cup of rainwater and some all-purpose dry fish food:
Hawaiian Red Shrimp Care – Setting up the Ecosphere
The intriguing idea about Ecospheres is that they are a closed-loop, self-supporting ecosystem that you create within the confines of a decorative piece of glass container. Naturally, you must pay careful attention to how you set up your Ecosphere. If you do it correctly, your container will become a virtually, if not entirely, self-sustaining habitat for your shrimp to thrive in. Hence, the best shrimp care starts by setting up the Ecosphere the best way possible. In order to do just that, obtain the items from above and do as follows:
- Wash and thoroughly rinse your glass container and set aside.
- Take one gallon of reverse osmosis (also called “distilled”) water and add only half the amount recommended for sea water. For example, if the reef salt instructions require you to add 1/2 cup of salt to one gallon distilled water, only add 1/4 cup to arrive at brackish water. Make sure to mix the water thoroughly until all the salt crystals have dissolved.
- Add 1-2 inches of pre-washed aquarium sand to your glass container.
- Place the lava rock into the aquarium in such a way that it looks pleasing to you and creates nooks and crannies for the shrimp to explore.
- Carefully add the brackish water from step 2 and fill the shrimp tank to about 80% capacity.
- Add a cup of rain water to inoculate your Ecosphere with microalgae and other beneficial microorganisms. Add the crushed egg shell as well.
- Place the Ecosphere in a spot where it can receive a good amount of natural light (morning or evening direct sunlight is ideal). If you don’t have such a spot, buy an aquarium light and put it on a 12/12 hour on/off cycle.
- Put the lid on loosely (or put on a saucer instead of the lid) to allow for some air exchange and let your Ecosphere “rest” for 2-3 weeks. During that time, the introduced microorganisms will establish themselves and form stable populations. At this point, your shrimp tank should look a bit like this:
- After two weeks of “resting”, order your Hawaiian Red Shrimp. I recommend ordering about 10-15 Opae Ula, no matter what size your shrimp tank is (they cost about $5 per individual). If you’ve set up everything correctly, your shrimp should start to reproduce until a stable population size has been reached.
- Carefully place your shrimp into the Ecosphere, including the water they came in. Give them some time to check out their new home (a day or so) and close the lid.
- The next day, open the lid and feed them with a small pinch of fish food (any brand will do). Initial feeding is recommended as the “manufactured” brackish water is low on nutrients. The fish food, on the other hand, is nutrient-rich and will provide ample of nitrogen to go around. Close the lid and enjoy your shrimp.
- After 4-5 weeks, add another pinch of fish food and observe the shrimp. Do they gobble it up within 1-2 hours? If so, your tank water is still low in nutrients and you should feed again in 4-5 weeks. If, at any time, you see algae growing on your lava rock or on the glass wall of the Ecosphere, you can stop feeding – probably forever.
The Life Cycle of Opae Ula
Life for Vulcano Shrimp starts as an egg that is carried around by the female (stages 8 and 1). After hatching, the larvae spend about two weeks barely visible swimming upside-down, much like mosquito larvae, before maturing to a post Larvae stadium (stage 3).
Juveniles mature to grown adults over next couple of month, depending on the availability of food (stages 4 and 5). If things are going well, your shrimp will outgrow their skin and start molting (stage 6). The discarded exoskeleton can often be found and can quite easily be mistaken for another shrimp.
If conditions are conducive, females will start to grow eggs inside their bodies (stage 7), that curious observers (aka their human overlord) will notice by a color change along the back and underside of the female.
Within the span of a couple of weeks, the eggs migrate to the outside, where they will be fertilized by a male (stage 8). Over the next couple of days, the eggs will detach from from the female and larvae will hatch.
Overall, the lifespan of Opae Ula can amount to 20 years, which is simply astounding.