Harlequin shrimp: tiny, tough reef predators

Harlequin shrimp: tiny, tough reef predators

This pair of harlequin shrimp, Hymenocera elegans, are feeding on a portion of a sea star in their Ocean Oddities exhibit. As an obligate feeder, this tropical shrimp preys exclusively on sea stars (although some observers note that they may nibble on the tube feet of sea urchins) in the Indo-Pacific region.

Usually found as mated pairs in nature, they work together to locate prey, even hunting and feeding on the invasive crown of thorns sea star. Females are larger than males, but neither grows over about an inch long. Bold colored patterns often indicate toxicity in invertebrates, but harlequin shrimp have no known toxins; their appearance may be just be a “false warning” disguise. But their dark and light patterning may also act as camouflage against reef substrate dappled by sunlight.

After locating their prey with chemoreceptive antennae, they will quickly mount an offense, using teamwork to tackle frequently larger prey. The pair will often flip the sea star up-side down to feed first on the tube feet, then on the softer body parts.


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