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44. The Harlequin Shrimp (Hymenocera elegans)


The Harlequin Shrimp is a rare but beautiful species of saltwater shrimp that lives on the tropical reefs of the Indo-Pacific. Some carcinologists (scientists who study crustaceans) split this species into two different species within the genus Hymenocera: Hymenocera elegans, with blue-edged brownish spots from the Indian Ocean and western Pacific Ocean, and Hymenocera picta, with yellow-edged deep pinkish-purple spots from the central and east Pacific Ocean.

Due to its beauty, the Harlequin Shrimp is a favourite subject of underwater photographers and videographers. However, do not be fooled by the lovely clown-like appearance of this shrimp. They’ve always reminded me a little of a Stephen King’s character, more particular of the clown in the movie “IT”.

Harlequin Shrimp reside in cracks and crevices on the reef and are usually found in pairs, with females being larger than males. These beautiful crustaceans exclusively prey on sea stars (starfish). While Echinoderms are common prey for many sea creatures, these shrimps add a morbid twist to their feeding behaviour: they work together as a couple, combining their forces to immobilise the sea star by turning it upside down. Once this happens, they start eating it alive, beginning at the tip of one of the arms, consuming the tube feet and soft tissues, and slowly working their way to the victim's central disk. They keep the victim alive, thus keeping it fresh for as long as possible. The "lucky" ones are those that can escape, sacrificing at least one arm, which the shrimp will feed on for several days.

It is believed that due to their food preferences, they have accumulated toxins that would make them distasteful and potentially dangerous to consume. Their flamboyant appearance can therefore be a form of aposematism, advertising to potential predators through colour that the species is toxic and unsafe to consume.

The Harlequin Shrimp species shown in this short underwater videoclip from Bali/Indonesia is the Hymenocera elegans.


Harlequin Shrimps are often found in small overhangs or crevices, making them somewhat challenging and from time to time almost impossible to film or photograph. However, they tend to stick around in a particular spot. Once you have found one of these beautiful critters, the waiting game begins. Patience will eventually create the opportunity to capture the underwater footage you've been waiting for. Do not rush it. If it doesn't work out immediately, swim away and return several minutes later or so. Take note that if undisturbed, they can remain there for a long period, so maybe postpone your shots to a next dive.

When an animal doesn't position itself well enough for a nicely framed picture or shot, it is often better to leave it as it is and move on to the next subject. Often, you'll spend a lot of time wasting valuable breathing gas or just adding extra decompression time trying to capture a reasonably good image when a beautiful photographic or filming opportunity may just be around the corner waiting for you. My advice is, if a subject doesn't cooperate, move on.

Filming location:

This short underwater videoclip has been filmed in Bali, Indonesia 🇮🇩

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