Tubifex worms, also known as Mud worms, Sludge worms, or Sewage worms, are a species of aquatic annelid worms that can be found in rivers, streams, and sewage treatment plants. They are commonly used as live food for aquarium freshwater fish, crabs, crayfish, axolotl, frogs, etc.
This article covers the biology, habitat, nutritional value, and culturing methods for Tubifex worms. It also addresses the importance of proper maintenance, harvesting, and storage.
In this article, I will delve into the characteristics and habits of Tubifex worms, including their life cycle, habitat, and nutritional value. It provides detailed instructions on how to culture, feed, harvest, and store them for use as live food for aquarium inhabitants.
What are Tubifex Worms?
Tubifex worms belong to the genus Tubifex, which is part of the family Tubificidae in the phylum Annelida. The most commonly used species for feeding pets and aquarium fish is the Tubifex tubifex.
In reality, it is not known how many species of Tubifex worms there are, as research on the species is still ongoing. However, some estimates suggest there could be over 20 species.
Although some species have a darker or lighter coloration, different body shapes, different sizes, and different markings, it is almost impossible to recognize the difference between these species for an ordinary hobbyist.
Habitat and Distribution of Tubifex Worms
Tubifex worms are found in freshwater environments such as rivers, streams, and lakes. They live in the sediment at the bottom of these bodies of water, typically in areas with a high level of organic matter.
They are often found in areas with high levels of pollution, such as sewage treatment plants, and are commonly referred to as “Mud worms” or “Sewage worms” because of this.
Description of Tubifex Worms
Size. Tubifex worms are small, freshwater worms that usually range in size from 1/4 inch to 2.3 inches (0.5 – 6 cm) long.
Color: They are typically red or brownish in color, although their color may vary depending on the environment in which they live and their diet.
Body structure: These worms have a cylindrical, bilaterally symmetrical body formed by a series of metamere segments.
Tubifex worms do not have hemoglobin. They do have a different type of protein that helps them to extract oxygen from the water, called hemocyanin, which is found in the blood of many invertebrates. Hemocyanin is blue when oxygenated, and colorless when deoxygenated. This protein is used to transport oxygen throughout the worm’s body, allowing it to survive in its aquatic habitat.
Behavior of Tubifex Worms
Tubifex worms are generally considered to be sedentary animals, meaning they do not move around much. They typically live in the sediment at the bottom of bodies of water and spend most of their time burrowed into the sediment, feeding on the organic matter present there.
They move by slow crawling and typically forage in a head-down position in sediments, with their tails protruding upwards and waving for the uptake of oxygen.
When disturbed, they coil their body.
Interesting fact: Tubifex worms are also able to survive in the sediment for a certain period of time without water, by extracting the oxygen from the sediment.
Difference between Tubifex worms and Blackworms
Many aquarium hobbyists often confuse Tubifex worms and Blackworms, as they are both commonly used as live food for fish and other aquatic pets. However, they are different species of worms and have distinct characteristics.
|Habitat||Highly polluted environments||Prefer cleaner environments|
up to 300 eggs per worm in 100 days
|Color||Light red to brownish||Dark red|
|Movements||Coiling, waving tail||Escape reflex, relatively steady tail|
|Size||0.8-2.3 inches (20-60 mm)||1.5-2.3 inches (40-60 mm)|
|Wet weight (mg)||3-8||0.1-20|
|Life cycle||20-62 days||Unlimited
(If you cut it in half, the two parts will grow into two new ones)
|Densities of specimens (per m2)||very high (up to 400 000)||never exceed 12 000
which corresponds to around 0.1 kg wet weight per m2
Adaptation: According to the study, Tubifex worms are more tolerant to low oxygen levels and can survive for longer periods in such conditions through anaerobic metabolism, while blackworms can survive for only a short period in low oxygen conditions.
Additionally, Blackworms are considered more nutritious than Tubifex worms and are considered to be a better food source for most aquatic pets.
Life Cycle of Tubifex Worms
The life cycle of Tubifex worms involves several developmental stages, starting from eggs, then hatching into larvae, and finally reaching maturity. Here is a step-by-step process of the life cycle of Tubifex worms:
- Reproduction: Although Tubifex worms are monoecious, which means they possess both male and female reproductive organs (hermaphrodites), they usually reproduce sexually.
Asexual reproduction by fragmentation is rarely observed, but asexual reproduction by parthenogenesis (involving egg production without fertilization) is also common.
- Eggs: Adult Tubifex worms will produce eggs in cocoons up to 300 eggs.
Note: Scientists calculated that the mean number of embryos per cocoon in Tubifex tubifex ranged from 4-11. The mean number of cocoons per worm ranged from 5-18.
- Embryonic development: it usually lasts at least 7 days. For example, at low temperatures (such as 60°F or 15°C) embryos hatch in 20 days.
- Maturity: Generally, newly hatched specimens start reproducing after 30 days. However, under high temperatures, newly hatched specimens may reach maturity in as little as 2 weeks, resulting in a significantly shorter lifecycle.
- Lifespan: A typical life cycle for these worms is 20-62 days.
Tubifex Worms as Live Food
Tubifex worms are considered to be a nutritious food source because they contain essential amino acids, a high amount of protein, and fat. They also contain small amounts of carbohydrates and minerals such as calcium, phosphorus, and iron.
|Components||Dry matter %|
|Protein||around 50 – 60 %|
|Fatty acids||around 10-15%|
It is important to note that live Tubifex worms are considered to be more nutritious than frozen worms.
|It is also important to note that the nutritional value of Tubifex worms can vary depending on the environmental conditions they are living in. If they are living in an environment with high levels of pollution, they may contain harmful bacteria or parasites and should be avoided as a food source.|
Supplies for Culturing Tubifex Worms
The following supplies are needed to culture Tubifex worms at home.
- Starter culture: Tubifex worms.
- Container: Aquarium or plastic container (such as a plastic bin).
- Substrate: any (peat moss, sand, or soil).
- Filtration: any type of filter
- Oxygen: air stone
- Harvesting: fishnet
- Food: Spirulina, fish food or blanched vegetables
Basic Set Up for Tubifex Worms Culture
- Add a fin layer of the substrate into the tank.
I repeat, there is no need to put a lot of substrate. It will be enough to have 0.4 inches (1 cm) deep.
- Install the filter.
Add water to the tank.
There should be enough water to completely cover your filter, nothing more. In most cases, 6 – 8 inches (15 – 20 cm will be enough).
Note: You can use old water from the water changes.
- Optimal temperature: 68 – 77°F (20 – 25°С)
- pH: 6.0 – 8.0
- Dissolved oxygen: 2 – 8 mg/L
It really does not matter. It is possible to culture these in tiny jars (1 gallon or 4 liters) as well as in huge tanks.
The minimum size tank needed to culture Tubifex worms will depend on the number of worms you plan to culture.
The optimal temperature for culturing Tubifex worms is between 68 – 77°F (20 – 25°С). This temperature range is suitable for their survival, growth, and reproduction.
Experiments showed that at 40°F (4°C), the feeding and growth rates of these worms are very low.
Oxygen and Aeration:
As I have already mentioned, Tubifex worms are able to deal with anoxic conditions for long periods (up to 25 days) by switching to anaerobic metabolism.
Nonetheless, such conditions will be suboptimal for their growth and reproduction. Therefore, it is strongly recommended to use any type of aeration in the tank.
As for the lighting, Tubifex worms are sensitive to light and need a dark and cool place to survive and multiply. So, low light or darkness is preferable.
Tubifex worms are photophobic. Thus, ambient light will be more than enough.
Keep in mind that these worms are typically found in environments where there is little to no light, such as the bottom of rivers and streams, or in sewage treatment plants.
It is possible to keep them in a bare-bottom tank as well. However, it will not be the best way to culture them.
According to the study, Tubificid worms feed primarily in the top 1 – 3 inches (2 to 8 cm) of the substrate. Thus, there is no need for a deep substrate. Some popular choices of substrate:
- Mixture of peat moss,
Strictly speaking, filtration is optional. Tubificid worms are very hardy worms and can survive in extreme environments. That is why we can start the culturing of these worms even without cycling the tank first.
However, in the long run, filtration is generally recommended for small tanks. Basically, it will be your safety net if something goes wrong.
The main problem with small tanks is that it can be difficult to constantly control water parameters. In small tanks, everything can go wrong so fast that you do not have time to fix things.
Feeding Tubifex Worms
Tubifex worms are detritivores, which means they feed mainly on the bacteria in sediments, which they extract during the continuous ingestion of sediment particles.
Experiments showed that, in the aquarium, these worms will benefit the most from:
- fish food (such as Tetramin, Spirulina, etc.).
- blanched vegetables.
Even though they can eat pretty much anything (from wheat bran to cow manure).
How much to feed Tubifex Worms
Generally, you need to feed them every 2 or 3 days.
Maintenance of Tubifex Worms
Once started, the Tubifex worm cultures require very little maintenance. Under optimal conditions, it will produce an abundant supply of worms.
- Controle your water parameters and temperature.
- Do water changes. You need to do a 10-30% water change every 3 – 5 days since the amount of food and bioload may significantly affect water quality.
- Regularly feed them.
Harvesting Tubifex Worms
Tubifex worms grow very fast and can be harvested after a few weeks of culturing when the worms have multiplied and the population has reached a desired size.
Here are some steps for harvesting the worms:
- Prepare a harvesting container: Fill a container such as a bucket or a plastic container with clean water.
- Remove the worms from the bedding: Take a small portion of the worm bedding from the culture container and place it in the harvesting container. Gently wring the bedding to separate the worms from the bedding.
- Collect the worms: The worms will come out of the bedding and can be collected from the water by the fishnet. Rinse them.
Storing Tubifex Worms
There are a few ways to store harvested Tubifex worms, depending on the intended use and the time frame for which they will be stored. Here are a few methods:
- Freezing: This method is suitable for worms that will not be used for an extended period of time. The worms can be stored this way for 3-4 weeks. When ready to use, they can be thawed and fed to pets.
- Drying: Drying the worms is also a possible method of storing them, but it’s not recommended as it can affect their nutritional value and texture.
Tubifex worms are a popular choice as live food due to their high protein content. They are relatively easy to culture at home because of their hardy nature. These aquatic worms are known to be very resistant to pollution.
Culturing them at home can be a cost-effective way to provide a regular food source for your pets.
Nonetheless, for optimal results, it is important to provide them with the optimal conditions for survival and reproduction.
|Tubifex worms as Live food|
|High nutrient content||Requires some time|
|Contain lots of vitamin and mineral supplements|
|Easy to culture|
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- Elissen, Hellen JH. Sludge reduction by aquatic worms in wastewater treatment: with emphasis on the potential application of Lumbriculus variegatus. Wageningen University and Research, 2007.
- Marian, M. Peter, and T. J. Pandian. “Culture and harvesting techniques for Tubifex tubifex.” Aquaculture42, no. 3-4 (1984): 303-315.
- Randall W. Oplinger, Matt Bartley & Eric J. Wagner(2011) Culture of Tubifex tubifex: Effect of Feed Type, Ration, Temperature, and Density on Juvenile Recruitment, Production, and Adult Survival, North American Journal of Aquaculture, 73:1, 68-75.
- Rodriguez, Pilar, Maite Martinez-Madrid, Jesús Angel Arrate, and Enrique Navarro. “Selective feeding by the aquatic oligochaete Tubifex tubifex (Tubificidae, Clitellata).” Hydrobiologia463, no. 1 (2001): 133-140.
- Kaster, Jerry L. “The reproductive biology of Tubifex tubifex Muller (Annelida: Tubificidae).” American Midland Naturalist(1980): 364-366.