Care Guide for Shell Dwellers: Smallest African Cichlids

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Care Guide for Shell Dwellers: 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. If you’re living in a bedroom or apartment with limited space, consider getting shell dwellers instead. The smallest African cichlids in the pet trade are the shell dwellers. They share the same fiery personality as the larger cichlids, but come in a smaller package of only two inches (5 cm). They can be kept in a nano tank of 20 gallons.


What is Shell Dwelling?

In this article, we are focusing on shell dwellers that hail from Lake Tanganyika – the world’s second largest freshwater lake that is located in the East African Rift Valley. Because this rift lake is very deep, most animals live along its rocky shorelines. The water is high in alkaline and has warm temperatures. This biodiverse environment is home to hundreds of unique species, like cichlids, crustaceans, and snails.

The common name of Lake Tanganyika’s snail dwellers is derived from the snail shells that they collect to breed and shelter. They prefer to use Neothauma tanganyicense snail shells, which are about 2 inches (5 cm) 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 can be aggressive and require more space for breeding. – Neolamprologus Brevis: The Neolamprologus Brevis has a more stocky body (like the Ocellatus) and a bulldog-like, blunt face. Sometimes, a male and a female will share the same shell. This is uncommon 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 an aquarium for shell dwellers

Multis and Similis can be kept in 10-gallon aquariums or larger, whereas Ocellatus and Brevis do better in 20 gallons or more. 20-gallon long aquariums are preferred because shell dwellers can make more use of horizontal space rather than vertical space. If you plan to add tank mates to the setup, you will need for at least 29 gallons in volume.

For Lake Tanganyika’s shoreline look best, you should aim for temperatures between 75-80degF (24-27degC), pH between 7.5-9.0, hard water at least 8deg (140 ppm), and temperatures between 75-80degF (24-25-27degC). 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. Because shell dwellers love to dig, add least 1-2 inches (2.5-5 cm) of sand substrate such as aragonite sand, which also helps to raise the pH and GH.

Neolamprologus similis

To reduce fighting among males, cover the sand entirely with shells if possible so that you have a minimum of three shells per fish. Online and specialty grocery stores can sell food-grade, extra-large Escargot snail shells. You can also use aquarium plants or decorations to block the line of sight between males. Plants can be uprooted by shell dwellers, who tend to excavate plants constantly. Look for plants that are not dependent on substrate and can live in high levels of pH, such as anubias, java Fern, and many other 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 are generally larger and more aggressive that 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. Cyprichromis, Neolamprologus and Julidochromis cichlids are great additions to any 55-60 gallons aquarium.

Julidochromis cichlids (like this Julidochromis marlieri) can be good tank mates for shell dwellers if you add a separate section of rockwork for them to claim as their territory.

Are shell dwellers allowed to eat snails? We don’t think so. They have been kept with nerite, bladder, and Malaysian trumpet snails without any problems. Whenever a snail gets too close for comfort, a shell dweller just picks it up with its mouth and drops the snail in the opposite corner of the tank.

What do Shell Dwellers Eat?

Wild, they eat mostly carnivorous foods, including zooplankton, small insects, and other microorganisms. Adults aren’t afraid to approach the surface for their food, but fry wait patiently to see if tiny, sinking foods will make their way into their shell openings. We feed ours a varied selection of crushed flakes, nano pellets, baby brine shrimp, micro worms, white worms, and frozen bloodworms.

How to Breed Shell Dwellers

Shell dwellers can be fun to breed and are easy to keep. As mentioned before, start with six or more fish, and provide at least three shells per fish. Next, feed plenty of food and maintain high water quality. The female will entice the male to her favorite shell, lay her eggs in the shell for the male to fertilize, and then guard the eggs until the fry hatch. The babies will wait until the baby brine shrimps and other tiny food float by, then they will move closer to the opening of their shell. As they get bigger, the youngster will explore further from the shell and eventually be kicked out by their mother to make way 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 for 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 beginner-friendly dwarf Cichlid is perfect for those with hard water and a large aquarium (20 gallons). Although Aquarium Co-Op does not ship live fish, you can check out at our recommended list of online fish retailers.