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. If you’re living in a bedroom or apartment with limited space, consider getting shell dwellers instead. 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?
This article will focus on the shell dwellers who hail from Lake Tanganyika, the second-largest freshwater lake in the world. It 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. Because of their diminutive stature, they tend to flee when startled by passing shadows or water changes, but once they recognize you as their primary food source, they will come up to the front of the glass to beg for extra 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 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. Their alkaline water needs (see below) are the most important thing to remember.
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. For tank mates, at least 29 Gallons is required.
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. Add at least 2 inches (2.5-5cm) of sand substrate to your aquarium. This helps raise 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 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. Avoid getting them in the bottom because they will be the only ones who can live there. 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. For a 55- to 60-gallon aquarium, we like adding Cyprichromis leptosoma (sardine cichlids), Neolamprologus brichardi (lyretail fairy cichlids), and rock-dwelling Julidochromis cichlids.
Julidochromis Cichlids (such as this Julidochromis Marlieri) can make good tank mates for shell-dwellers if they have their own section of rockwork.
Are shell dwellers allowed to eat snails? We don’t think so. With no issues, we have kept them with Malaysian bladder, Malaysian trumpet, and nerite snails. A shell dweller will pick up a snail that is too close to the tank and drop it in the opposite corner.
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. 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 female will lure the male to her preferred shell and lay her eggs there for him to fertilize. Once the eggs hatch, she will keep them safe. 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 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
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.