The Secret World of Freshwater Snails: A Guide to Their Habits and Behaviors

A freshwater aquarium is an enclosed ecosystem that requires balance to remain healthy. Equipping your tank with proper filtration and lighting is essential but once your tank is up and running you’ll need to do some work to maintain it. Uneaten food, fish feces, and other detritus in the tank will break down and impact the water quality, not to mention the growth of algae.

Adding a few freshwater snails to your tank can take some of the work of tank maintenance off your shoulders. Aquarium snails feed on algae, fine detritus, and rotting plant material to help keep your tank clean. Plus, they’re peaceful tank inhabitants and their unique behavior makes them an intriguing addition o the tank.

The Top 3 Types of Freshwater Snails

There are dozens of different freshwater snails which have been cultivated in the aquarium hobby, but some are more popular than others. Three of the most common freshwater snails kept in aquariums are mystery snails, nerite snails, and rabbit snails.

1. Mystery Snails

Members of the Ampullariidae family, mystery snails (Pomacea bridgesii) have a peaceful temperament and are generally easy to care for. They reach up to 2 inches in diameter and come in a variety of colors ranging from dark neutrals to bright yellow, blue, or even purple. They are typically solid in color, though some exhibit bands of color wrapping around the shell.

Mystery snails can tolerate a wide range of water conditions, though they prefer densely planted tanks with warm, slightly alkaline water. These snails can often be seen rising to the surface of the tank to breathe air, so it’s wise to leave a gap of 2 to 4 inches between the lid and the water surface. Be sure to keep a lid on the tank because these snails are notorious for making escape attempts.

2. Nerite Snails

Nerite snails (Neritina natalensis) are typically a little smaller than mystery snails and they can be found in both freshwater and saltwater. They come in a variety of colors and patterns such as the striped Zebra Nerite Snail, the Black Racer Nerite Snail, and the green-brown Olive Nerite Snail.

These snails typically grow to about 1 inch in diameter and they are very low-maintenance. Nerite snails prefer warm temperatures with water in the 7 to 8.5 pH range. These snails are very peaceful and are unlikely to interact with other inhabitants in your tank. One thing to be mindful of about nerite snail behavior is that they will sometimes go through extended periods of rest in which they may appear to be dead for several days at a time.

3. Rabbit Snails

Rabbit snails are also sometimes called elephant snails and they differ greatly in appearance from the other two types mentioned. Rather than having compact, round shells, rabbit snails have elongated conical shells. They get the nickname rabbit snail from the two long antennae on top of their heads that look like rabbit ears.

These snails can grow up to three inches long, so they may need a larger tank than other species. They generally do well with other peaceful tank inhabitants and even other snails. In terms of reproduction, it takes rabbit snails about a year to become sexually mature and then they reproduce at a very slow rate.

Freshwater snails - Rabbit snail.

Snail Behavior in Aquariums

When it comes to freshwater snail behavior, you shouldn’t expect anything too flagrant. As you might assume, most snails are slow-moving, and they tend to keep mostly to themselves. You may find your snails wandering all over the aquarium in search of food, though they’ll likely spend most of their time on the bottom of the tank where food leftovers and detritus tend to accumulate.

Though freshwater snails don’t move quickly on their own, they do sometimes ride the currents inside the tank. It’s not uncommon for aquarium snails to climb up tank walls and then release their grip at the top to float back down to the bottom. You may even see your snails floating upside down on the surface from time to time, happy to go where the movement of the water takes them.

Feeding Behavior

Aquarium snails are grazers. They glide over rocks, substrate, and other surfaces in the tank to find algae, leftover food, and detritus. If you watch your snail as it climbs the tank wall, you’ll be able to see through the glass to the snail’s underside. You’ll see its mouth and, if you look very closely, you might even be able to see some of its teeth.

Aquarium snails possess between 1,000 and 3,000 teeth – the highest number of all living organisms. Snails have a long, tongue-like structure called a radula which is constructed of tissues that contain 100 to 120 rows of teeth. The number and arrangement of teeth may vary by species.

To eat, aquarium snails collect food using the teeth on the radula and then bring it into the mouth where it is ground between the teeth and a jaw located on the roof of the snail’s mouth. If you get close enough, you may even be able to hear the sound of the snail grinding food as it eats.

Breeding Behavior

Freshwater snails are egg-layers. In most cases, males of the species fertilize the female through direct copulation and the female deposits the eggs on a surface in the tank. Mystery snails deposit their eggs above the water line in clutches that may contain hundreds of eggs. Rabbit snails, on the other hand, reproduce very slowly – they release small white egg sacks that contain just one or two baby snails.

Nerite snails lay eggs as well, but they require a brackish environment in order to reproduce. Breeding nerite snails in captivity is notoriously difficult. You may find small white nerite snail eggs deposited on surfaces around your tank but, if you’re keeping nerite snails in freshwater, they are unlikely to hatch.

All three of these freshwater snails require both a male and a female in order to breed – they cannot reproduce asexually. It’s often best to keep several snails if you plan to breed them since it can be difficult to distinguish between the sexes. During copulation, the male inserts his male organ below the female’s mantle edge. After the eggs have been fertilized, the female uses her foot to transfer them to the desired surface.


Like other “cleanup crew” tank inhabitants such as shrimp, snails subsist mainly on what they find in the tank. You may need to supplement their diet from time to time and make sure there’s enough calcium in the water, but snails largely take care of themselves.

The key to keeping snail habitats healthy is maintaining high water quality and ensuring the water chemistry is within the ideal range for your snails. You can find these and many other snails at Shrimpy Business where you can find a comprehensive care guide for each snail as well.
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