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Written by: Dan Colodney

Lake Tanganyikan Shell Dwellers.

Lake Tanganyikan Shell Dwellers point map
Shell dwellers point map



Neolamprologus multifasciatus
Neolamprologus multifasciatus-female




Got Shells? Well then, how about the Lake Tanganyikan "shell dwellers". Most shell dwellers will be found in the genera Lamprologus and Neolamprologus with a single species, Telmatochromis burgeoni representing the only non-lamprologine. All so-called 'ostracophilic' (shell loving) cichlids from Lake Tanganyika exhibit a decided preference for living near and spawning in empty snail shells. In the Lake, these species originate from the coastal waters where they inhabit the sandy littoral zone at depths ranging from 15-90 feet over a substrate of fine sand or mud. The bottom of this ecosystem is littered with the empty shells of Neothauma tanganicensis, the only snail to be found here.

Keeping shell dwellers is not difficult, but certain recommended techniques should be followed. If you want to establish a breeding colony, and why keep this species if you do not, at least one square foot of "floor space" should be allowed for each male and at least one shell should be available for each individual fish in the colony. Since the vast majority of shell dwellers will bury their shells until only a small opening remains exposed, the substrate should consist of 2-3 inches of fine sand or very small gravel. In my experience, coral sand is good but 'silver' sand is better still.

The temperature and chemistry of Lake Tanganyika exhibits a mean 80°F with a pH of 8.5-9.4, a hardness (gH) of 240-320 ppm, a buffering capacity (kH) of 180-240 ppm and 500-600 ppm TDS. Unlike many cichlids from Central and South America, Tanganyikan species do not appreciate excessive water change and more than about 25 percent weekly can be detrimental to juveniles younger than 4 months old. Shell Dwellers are primarily invertebrate feeders of freshwater shrimp, Cyclops and Daphnia which should be the focus of their captive diet for best results. As they mature, a variety of high quality commercial foods can be included in their diet.


Lake Tanganyika water statistics

Area 12700 sq. miles
Maximum depth Over 4700 feet
Clarity Up to 70 feet
pH 8.5 - 9.4
Total hardness 11 - 17 ºH
Carbonate hardness 16 - 19 ºH
Surface temperature 76 to 85º F, 80º mean
Deep water temperature About 70º F
Conductivity at 68 dF 570-640 micro-Siemens/cm



Lake Tanganyika:

Ruizizi river
Ruizizi river flowing into Lake Tanganyika.
Photo from the Lake Tanganyika fisheries research site.

Most of the shell-dwelling species are small, aggressive and territorial cichlids. They exhibit a spawning routine that can be characterized by either (a) a weak pair-bonding between male and female in the context of a colonial social structure or (b) a harem consisting of a single male and a loose colony of 4-6 females in which each female will have established her own territory within the boundaries of the males territory. Although these are small fish, they are cichlids and in the confines of the aquarium males can and will fight to the death over territory and shelter. You can diminish this behaviour by providing ample space and redundant shells thus obviating the need for such aggression. If a surplus of empty shells is provided, most of these species will continue to breed until the tank reaches 'saturation' of both offspring and mature breeding pairs, at which time you can 'thin the herd' by removing a dozen or more shells along with the occupants and replacing them with empty shells.

Lamprologus kungweensis exhibits a distinct golden mark above each eye which will become more apparent with the sexual maturity of both males and females. Adult males grow to about 2.5 inches TL (total length) with females slightly smaller. Sexing L. kungweensis is very difficult though the female 'may' appear slightly lighter in overall color. In spawning coloration, the normal blotch pattern over the flanks becomes darker and individual blotches become larger. Females indicate a willingness to spawn by quivering at the opening of her shell trying to attract a male. When this is accomplished, she will enter the shell and deposit about 30 eggs, then leave so the male can enter and fertilize them. Eggs will hatch in about 8 days at 80°F.

Lamprologus meleagris is a silvery-black cichlid with purplish flanks and a series of irregular pearl-like spots which accent scales and fins. As with L. kungweensis, meleagris does not exceed 2.5 inches. Spawning is best accomplished by keeping single pairs in suitably sized tanks, since this cichlid is not aggressive enough to defend fry in a harem/community situation.

Lamprologus occellatus exhibits a gold margined black blotch on the operculum (gill cover) and has a gold iris, which characteristics can be used to distinguish it from similarly colored species. A gold color morph of occellatus has been intoduced into the hobby and though difficult to obtain, is well worth the search. The most distinctive characteristic of L. ocellatus is the size disparity between males and females; mature males grow to about 2 inches TL while females reach only 1.5 inches at best. Though this is considered a colonial species with a male and several females occupying a small (about 24 inches) territory around their chosen shell, maintaining a single pair is possible in a fifteen gallon tank with a fine substrate and 4-6 shells.

Photo courtesy of Aqualand pets plus
Lamprologus occellatus
Lamprologus occellatus

Lamprologus ornatipinnis has very ornate finnage, distinctive in their markings with a series of purple to black striations, most particularly the dorsal and caudal fins. This is decidedly a colonial species and is best maintained as a harem of a single male with 5 females in a twenty gallon tank. Females develop a purple metallic sheen over the abdomen as breeding condition progresses.

Photo courtesy of Aqualand pets plus
Lamprologus ornatipinnis
Lamprologus ornatipinnis

Lamprologus signatus is one of the smallest shell dwellers, males not exceeding two inches and females smaller. Males develop 12-13 narrow vertical brown bands across the flanks, which often extend over the caudal peduncle and fin. Females exhibit no markings at all and fact, look like an entirely different species. Some females will exhibit a black ocellus in the middle of the dorsal fin. As with ornatipinnis, this species is best maintained as a harem and definitely no more than a single male per tank. Unique to signatus is the way in which both sexes transfer eggs and wrigglers from the original shell, through a series of successive shells until finally, the fry are large enough to fend for themselves.

Neolamprologus hecqui
N. boulengeri
N. calliurus
N. multifasciatus
N. similis
N. brevis

Neolamprologus multifasciatus
Neolamprologus multifasciatus

While there are subtle differences between the shell dwelling species, the general husbandry requirements are similar. If your space is limited to small tanks and you'd like to try your hand at cichlids, I highly recommend any of the shell dwellers.

Additional photos:

You're never too old to have a happy childhood

Your comments:

From: David
I keep a Multi tank - so far with only 1 breeding pair. Only the parents require a shell. Other juveniles just seem to hide in the rocks and are not particularly fond of the remaining shells. I highly recommend them.





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