Care Guide for Shell Dwellers: Smallest African Cichlids


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. Shell dwellers are a great option if you have a small apartment or bedroom. 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. The best part is that they can live in a 20 gallon nano tank.


What are Shell Dwellers?

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. This ancient rift lake is extremely deep, so most animals live along the rocky shorelines where the water is highly alkaline and has tropical temperatures. This unique environment is home for hundreds of species like cichlids.

The common name of Lake Tanganyika’s snail dwellers is derived from the snail shells that they collect to breed and shelter. They prefer Neothaumatanganyicense snailshells which measure approximately 2 in (5 cm) in size. This size cap means that most shell dwellers in the aquarium hobby only reach a maximum of 2.5 inches (6 cm). They are small and can run away from water changes or passing shadows. However, once they have established you as their primary food source they will beg for more 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 many types of Ocellatus but the gold one is 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. A male and female that are paired together will sometimes share the same shell, which is unusual 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. The main thing to keep in mind is their alkaline water requirements (see below).

How to Set Up a Shell Dweller Aquarium

Multis and Similis can live in 10-gallon aquariums, while Ocellatus & Brevis prefer 20 gallons. Because shell dwellers prefer to make use of vertical space, 20-gallon aquariums are better than shorter ones. 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 and Seachem Equilibrium are mineral supplements that can increase GH in soft water. 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. To make sure the males can’t see each other, it is a good idea to put decorations or aquarium plants in their path. The shell dwellers are known to root out plants in their endless excavations. Therefore, it is important to choose plants that don’t require substrate and can survive in high pH environments such as anubias and java fern. 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 more aggressive and larger 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. They are located in the aquarium’s lower section so avoid disturbing their habitat. Also, narrow down your search to species that can tolerate alkaline, 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 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.

Do shell dwellers eat snails? Not in our experience. With no issues, we have kept them with Malaysian bladder, Malaysian trumpet, and nerite snails. Shell dwellers can pick up any snails that are too close to their tank, and then drop them in the opposite corner.

What does a Shell Dweller eat?

In the wild, they enjoy a mostly carnivorous diet of zooplankton, small invertebrates, 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

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. 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 stay close to the opening of the shell, waiting for live baby brine shrimp and other tiny foods to float by for them to eat. 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

One thing to note is that it is almost impossible to remove 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.