Care Guide for Shell Dwellers- The Smallest African Cichlids
African cichlids are some of the most colorful, exciting fish in the freshwater aquarium hobby, but many species often require 55-gallon aquariums or larger. Consider shell dwellers if you live in a smaller space such as a bedroom or apartment. As one of the smallest African cichlids available in the pet trade, they have the same fiery personality but condensed into a 2-inch (5 cm) package. They can be kept in a nano tank of 20 gallons.
What are Shell Dwellers?
We will be focusing on the Shell dwellers from Lake Tanganyika. This lake is the second largest freshwater lake in the entire world and is located in East African Rift Valley. The rift lake’s ancient water depth is so deep that most animals live on the rocky shorelines. This area has high alkalinity and tropical temperatures. This unique environment is home for hundreds of species like cichlids.
Lake Tanganyika snail dwellers derive their common name from the shells they collect for shelter and breeding. They prefer Neothauma Tanganyicense snailshells that are approximately 2 inches (5 cm in) in diameter. This size cap means that most shell dwellers in the aquarium hobby only reach a maximum of 2.5 inches (6 cm). Their diminutive stature means that they are prone to running when they feel threatened by water changes or shadows. But once they recognize you as their main food source, they will often come to the front of your aquarium to ask for additional feedings.
Neolamprologus multifasciatus, or multis
What are the different types of shell dwellers? The most readily available species that you may find online or in your fish store include:
– Neolamprologus multifasciatus: Multis (or multies) are the most common and smallest variety, known for their thin, vertical striping and bright blue eyes. – Neolamprologus Similis : Similis look very similar to multis but their stripes run all the way up to their eyes, instead of just behind the gill plate. – Lamprologus ocellatus: There are several varieties of Ocellatus, but the gold type is one of the most colorful. They tend to be more aggressive than their cousins and may need a little extra space for breeding. Neolamprologus Brevis – Brevis are a larger breed than the Ocellatus and have a blunt, bulldoglike face. The shells of a pair of male and female can sometimes be shared, which is rare among shell dwellers.
Are shell dwellers easy to keep? Yes, they are fairly easy fish because of their small size, big appetite, and ease of breeding. Keep in mind their alkaline water requirements (see further).
How to set up a Shell Dweller Aquarium
Multis and Similis can live in 10-gallon aquariums, while Ocellatus & Brevis prefer 20 gallons. 20-gallon long aquariums are preferred because shell dwellers can make more use of horizontal space rather than vertical space. You will need at least 29 gallons to add tank mates.
To best imitate the Lake Tanganyika shoreline, aim for temperatures of 75-80degF (24-27degC), pH of 7.5-9.0, and hard water with at least 8deg (140 ppm) GH. Wonder Shells or Seachem Equrium can be added to softened water to increase GH. For filtration, use a sponge filter or get a pre-filter sponge to cover the filter intake tube, which will prevent baby fish and sand from getting sucked up. Shell dwellers love digging so make sure to add at least 1-2 inches (22.5-5 cm) of sand substrate, such as aragonite, to the aquarium. This will help to increase pH and GH.
To reduce fighting among males, cover the sand entirely with shells if possible so that you have a minimum of three shells per fish. You can purchase food-grade, extra-large escargot snail shells from online or specialty grocery stores. To make sure the males can’t see each other, it is a good idea to put decorations or aquarium plants in their path. Shell dwellers tend to uproot plants during their constant excavations, so look for plants that do not require substrate and can live in high pH – such as java fern, anubias, and many floating plants. Plants not only look beautiful, but they also help improve water quality by consuming the toxic nitrogen chemicals produced from the fish’s waste.
How many shell dwellers should I have? Get at least six fish of the same species to ensure that you have enough males and females to start a healthy colony. Although it is ideal to have at least two to three females per male, it can sometimes be difficult to sex young fish. Adult males tend to be larger and more aggressive than females
What fish can you put with shell dwellers? Despite their small size, shell dwellers are considered semi-aggressive and can hold their own against bigger, 4-inch (10 cm) fish. These fish can be thought of as the Lake Tanganyika Chihuahua cichlids. Since they occupy the lower sections of the aquarium, avoid getting bottom dwellers that will disturb their territory. It is important to narrow your search to species which can live in alkaline or mineral-rich waters. For a 29-gallon tank, we have kept them with African butterflyfish, livebearers, halfbeaks, and smaller rainbowfish. We like to add Cyprichromis Leptosoma (sardine and halfbeak cichlids), Neolamprologus Brichardi (lyretail fairy and cichlids), as well as rock-dwelling Julidochromis (cichlids) to a 55-to-60-gallon aquarium.
Julidochromis is a good choice for shell dwellers. They can also be tank mates if you have a section of rockwork that they claim as their territory.
Are shell dwellers allowed to eat snails? We don’t think so. We have kept them with Malaysian trumpet, bladder, and nerite snails with no problems. Shell dwellers can pick up any snails that are too close to their tank, and then drop them in the opposite corner.
What do Shell Dwellers eat?
They eat a predominantly carnivorous diet consisting of zooplankton and small invertebrates. The adults are not afraid to come to the surface to grab their meals, but the fry stay close to their snail shells and wait for tiny, sinking foods to waft into the shell opening. Our fry are fed a variety of foods, including crushed flakes, baby brine shrimps, micro worms and white worms.
How to Breed Shell Dwellers
It is very easy to breed shell dwellers. As mentioned before, start with six or more fish, and provide at least three shells per fish. You should then feed lots of food and keep the water quality high. The male will be attracted to the female’s favorite shell. She will lay eggs inside the shell and wait for the male. The babies wait for the live baby brine shrimp or other small foods to come by to feed them, and they stay close to their shells. As they get larger, the juveniles will begin to explore further away from their shells until their mother kicks them out in order to make room for the next batch. If the shell dwellers are not breeding for some reason, check the water parameters and consider adding more fish or shells to the mix.
Two Lamprologus ocellatus fighting over territory by lip locking
It is nearly impossible to get rid of shell dwellers from their shells. If you are planning to breed the fish for profit, remove the shells. Instead, make 3/4″ or 1″ PVC elbows. They have an end cap on one end. When it is time to sell the fish, you can easily remove the end cap and pour the fish out for bagging.
Shell dwellers are fascinating fish that will give you and your entire family hours of enjoyment as you watch them dig pits, defend their territory, and dart in and out of shells. This dwarf cichlid is a great choice for beginners if you have hard water and enough space to keep it in a 20-gallon tank. Although Aquarium Co-Op does not ship live fish, you can check out at our recommended list of online fish retailers.