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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. 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. 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. 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 biodiverse environment is home to hundreds of unique species, like cichlids, crustaceans, and snails.

Lake Tanganyika shell dwellers get their common name from the snail shells they collect for breeding 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). 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

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 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 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. 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 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.

To best imitate the Lake Tanganyika shoreline, aim for temperatures of 75–80°F (24–27°C), pH of 7.5–9.0, and hard water with at least 8° (140 ppm) GH. If you have softer water, add Wonder Shells or Seachem Equilibrium as mineral supplements that raise 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

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. You can purchase food-grade, extra-large escargot snail shells from online or specialty grocery stores. 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. Ideally, you should aim for at least two to three females for every male, but sometimes it can be hard to sex juveniles. Adult males tend to be larger and more aggressive 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. Think of them as the chihuahuas of Lake Tanganyika cichlids. Since they occupy the lower sections of the aquarium, avoid getting bottom dwellers that will disturb their territory. 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 marlieri

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.

Do shell dwellers eat snails? Not in our experience. We have kept them with Malaysian trumpet, bladder, and nerite snails with no 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. The adults are not afraid to come to the surface to grab their meals, but the fry stay close to their snail shells and wait for tiny, sinking foods to waft into the shell opening. 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 are very fun and easy to breed. As mentioned before, start with six or more fish, and provide at least three shells per fish. Then focus on feeding plenty of food while keeping the water quality high. 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 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.

Lamprologus ocellatus fighting by locking mouths

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 plan on breeding them for profit, skip the shells and instead use ¾” or 1” PVC elbows that have an end cap on one side. 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. If you have harder water and the space for a 20-gallon aquarium, you definitely need to try this beginner-friendly dwarf cichlid. Although Aquarium Co-Op does not ship live fish, you can check out at our recommended list of online fish retailers.

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