Detritus Worms in Aquarium: What Should I Do?

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Maybe one day you came across a detritus worm in your fish tank, and because you’ve never encountered it before, you’re not sure what you should do about it.

In this article, we’ll be going into detail about what detritus worms are, how they may impact your tank and your other fish, and what actions you should take if you happen to encounter one.

Detritus worms are small aquarium pests that are part of the annelida phylum.

They come from sources such as outside gravel or newly introduced fish, and though they don’t harm fish or humans, their presence can indicate an issue with your tank.

So it’s best to solve the problem with your tank and then physically remove the worms if you feel the need.

Detritus Worms

Before looking at what to do in case of a detritus worm infestation, let’s first go into a bit more detail on what these worms are and how they come to be so that the later steps make sense.

What Are Detritus Worms?

Detritus worms are a group of segmented worms belonging to the Annelida phylum. This phylum also includes other segmented worms, such as earthworms, leeches, and bristle worms.

Detritus worms are typically whitish-brown in color and are very thin to the point where they may resemble strands of hair. They can grow up to one inch in length and can be found wriggling through the water.

Detritus worms are named as such due to their diet, which comprises decomposing plants, animals, leftovers, and bio-waste (otherwise known as detritus).

Detritus worms are quite common in aquariums as they can be introduced from a variety of sources (more on that later), but their population depends on the quality of water; the poorer the quality, the more detritus worms you’ll find.

As such, you can use the abundance of these worms as a way of determining the quality of the water.

Where Do Detritus Worms Live in Fish Tanks?

Detritus worms live and can be found in the substrate. However, due to their small size, they’re typically seen only when they come up out of the substrate in large numbers due to a lack of space in the substrate.

Because their bodies are so thin and flexible, detritus worms can fit in between small grains of sand or in small spaces between pebbles.

Even though this is where they live, you can find them drifting in the water or getting caught in the filters if there is a large abundance of them.

Where Do Detritus Worms Come From?

As mentioned earlier, detritus worms are quite common in fish tanks as they can arise from various places.

Examples of such places include fish, plants, and substrate that you’ve introduced to your tank.

If you had previously taken substrate from one unbeknownst infected tank to another tank, you could have taken many of the worms along for the ride.

And since these worms can be hard to notice in the substrate in small numbers, it can be difficult to realize what happened until you have an explosion in population later on.

The same thing can happen with plants, where these worms will often latch themselves onto leaves and roots.

With fish, these worms will often attach themselves to their skin.

What Types of Animals Consume Detritus Worms?

Due to their small size, just about any type of carnivorous or omnivorous aquarium fish will prey on detritus worms.

Some bottom-feeder fish, such as the corydoras catfish and loaches, can sift through the substrate and pluck these worms out, while other fish will eat them as they float up the water column.

Here is a list of some popular fish known to consume detritus worms:

Keep in mind that this list is far from a complete list, as there are simply too many types of fish that can consume detritus worms; it’s just that these are the most commonly seen predators.

Are Detritus Worms Harmful to Fish or Humans?

Though a detritus worm infestation probably isn’t something you’d want in your fish tank, hopefully, it’s reassuring to know that they’re not particularly harmful to fish or humans.

Even though these worms may attach themselves to plants or fish for a ride, they only consume decaying organic matter, hence they’re not actually harming them in any way.

In fact, they can instead be beneficial to your tank since they, like algae eaters, help clean up any decaying matter, such as leftover fish food and fish and plant waste, from the water.

Keep in mind, however, that even though these worms won’t harm anyone, you’d want to avoid having too many of them as they can both cause overcrowding in your tank and indicate an issue with the fish tank water, meaning something in the tank will need to be changed.

How to Get Rid of Detritus Worms

The main way of removing detritus worms from your fish tank is to first fix the source of the bloom (remember that they only propagate quickly if there’s an issue with the water) and then physically remove the worms.

Before you get down to it, it’s important to remember not to immediately grab the closest worm medication as that may worsen the problem. Not only are they ineffective against the worms, but they can also kill the fish.

Materials You’ll Need

Here are the materials you’ll need to clear your tank of the worms:

  • Scraper/brush
  • Algae eaters (such as bristlenose pleco, cherry shrimp, trumpet snails, or any other bottom-dwelling or filter-feeding animal known to consume algae)
  • Siphon system (including vacuum)
  • All-natural sanitizer/bleach
  • Freshwater

What You’ll Need to Do

Here’s the procedure to follow in removing the worms:

  • Remove any algae buildup from the sides of the tank by scrubbing at it using the scraper or brush (don’t use materials that contain soap)
  • You may choose to introduce algae eaters to your tank in order for them to consume the free-flowing algae
  • If you don’t have algae eaters at hand, you may use a siphon system to remove free-flowing algae
  • Vacuum the substrate using the siphon system, during which time you’ll pick up the majority of the worms
  • Examine the filter and see if it needs cleaning; a very dirty filter may require changing (which typically occurs every 4-6 weeks)
  • Disinfect the tank lid using a specially sold spray, or homemade solutions such as vinegar and water
  • For decorative plants and other items that might be covered in bacteria, remove them from the tank and sanitize them using the all-natural sanitizer
  • Alternatively, you may use bleach and water to soak the decorative items for roughly 15 minutes (remember to rinse thoroughly before placing them back in the tank)
  • Place the decorative items back in the tank after you’ve finished cleaning the tank
  • Perform several water changes in the next 4-5 days; replace about 25% of the water at a time so the fish won’t be stressed by the sudden environmental shift
  • You may also choose to change your water as rarely as once a week to ensure the preservation of beneficial bacteria (the frequency of water changes will depend on your individual situation)
  • Vacuum the substrate on the days that you perform a water change

Expect the stabilization of the water to take some time, but if you follow the steps listed above, you should see a gradual decrease in the number of detritus worms in your tank as water conditions improve.

Read More:

Aquarium Detritus Worms: FAQs

Should I Get Rid of Detritus Worms?

Whether you should get rid of detritus worms will depend on your situation.

If you know there’s a small and stable population of detritus worms in your tank, it’s probably fine to keep them around.

But if they’re overpopulated and are taking over the tank, it’s probably time to get rid of at least a large majority of them.

As mentioned earlier, detritus worms help remove organic wastes and uneaten leftover food from the water, hence improving the quality of the water. But having too many can not only lead to an unattractive sight, but you’ll also risk them depleting the water of oxygen.

How Can I Keep Detritus Worms from Coming Back?

The best ways of preventing another detritus worm outbreak are to reduce the waste that accumulates in the water, meaning you’ll have to change either your feeding or cleaning methods.

Be sure to vacuum and conduct water changes on a frequent, regular basis to prevent these worms from having a reason to multiply.

Also, if you notice leftover food after feeding, remember to cut back on the amount or frequency of the feeding sessions. Any uneaten food will fall to the substrate and decay over time, providing these worms with an excellent food source.

If in doubt, know that it’s probably better to feed your fish smaller meals than one large meal. This allows you to have better control of the food amount (as you can cut a meal during the day) and reduces the risk of having leftovers after meals.

Do Snails Eat Detritus Worms?

Although snails are known to feed on detritus, they don’t eat detritus worms. However, being that they consume detritus, you can have snails as a way to prevent detritus worms from reappearing by removing their food source.

Do Detritus Worms Stick on Glass?

If your tank is overpopulated with detritus worms, you may notice them all over the place, including swimming in the water, sticking on the glass panels, and peering out from the substrate.

This is not normally the case though, as they’ll usually just stay safe within the substrate under normal circumstances.

If you do notice a worm sticking on the glass, be sure to check it out and confirm it’s not a planaria worm. These worms tend to stick to and crawl on glass, and they can be quite difficult to remove compared to detritus worms.


Unlike other aquarium worms, detritus worms can be a beneficial addition to your fish tank if their numbers are kept under control.

No need to worry if you have an outbreak though, as they’re quite easy to remove as long as you’re following the simple guidelines we’ve listed in this article.

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