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. If you’re living in a bedroom or apartment with limited space, consider getting shell dwellers instead. They are one of the most compact African cichlids on the market. They have the same fiery personality, but they come in a small package measuring only 2 inches (5 cm). The best part is that they can live in a 20 gallon nano tank.


What is Shell Dwelling?

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. 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.

Lake Tanganyika snail dwellers derive their common name from the shells they collect for shelter and breeding. They prefer to use Neothauma tanganyicense snail shells, which are about 2 inches (5 cm) in diameter. Because of this size limit, most aquarium shell dwellers only reach 2.5 inches (6cm) in height. 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 multiifasciatus (or multiples)

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 almost exactly like multis, except their stripes go all the way to their eyes instead of stopping behind the gill plate. Lamprologus Ocellatus. There are many types of Ocellatus but the gold one is the most colorful. They tend to be more aggressive than their cousins and may need a little extra space for breeding. – Neolamprologus brevis: Brevis have a stockier body shape (like the Ocellatus), as well as a blunt, bulldog-like 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 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. The preferred size for shell dwellers is 20-gallon tanks. You will need at least 29 gallons to add tank mates.

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. Add at least 2 inches (2.5-5cm) of sand substrate to your aquarium. This helps raise 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 or in specialty grocery shops, you can buy food-grade, extra large escargot snailshells. It may also be helpful to use decorations or aquarium plants to block line of sight so the males cannot see each other as well. 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 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. Avoid getting them in the bottom because they will be the only ones who can live there. You should also narrow your search to species that are able to tolerate alkaline and mineral-rich water. 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 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?

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 them a wide variety of crushed flakes and nano pellets.

How to Breed Shell Dwellers

Shell dwellers are very fun and easy to breed. 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 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 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.