Care Guide for Shell Dwellers: Smallest African Cichlids

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. 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). Best of all, 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. 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 environment is home to many unique species such as cichlids and crustaceans.

Lake Tanganyika snail dwellers derive their common name from the shells they collect for shelter and breeding. 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). 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 Mulifasciatus Multis (or multies are the most common) are best known for their fine, vertical stripes and brightly colored 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 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. 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 are best kept in 10 gallon or larger aquariums. Ocellatus or Brevis, on the other hand, do well in 20 gallons and more. The preferred size for shell dwellers is 20-gallon tanks. 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 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. 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.

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 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. They are located in the aquarium’s lower section so avoid disturbing their habitat. 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 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.

Can shell dwellers eat snails, according to our experience? No. 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 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 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. 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 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 grow bigger, the juveniles will start exploring further and further away from their shell until the mother eventually kicks them out to make room for her 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

Note that it is almost impossible for shell dwellers to be removed 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.