I first became aware of African cichlids, it was the color of the
Lake Malawi species that caught my attention.
With my tap having a natural pH of around 8.8 and hardness of
GH and KH, it seemed logical that Africans would be an
My problem was the lack of space for a 50+ gallon tank, and
my research led me to many of the smaller Tanganyikan species.
This is how I discovered shelldwellers.
The idea of a small fish with a cichlid temperament that made
its home and spawned inside of shells intrigued me.
As I researched these species, I was, at first a bit
disappointed with the looks of these fish, until I ran across a
picture of Lamprologus meleagris, AKA “pearly occelatus”.
One look at the alien-like facial features and the delicate
pattern and coloration of these fish, and I was hooked!
Once I actually acquired these fish for my own and was able
to view them in person, I became even more enamored with them.
With their chocolate brown and cream color, pearly dots, and
bright blue gill plates, they were much more strikingly colored than
I had previously thought with only pictures to go by.
The males are especially attractive, darker in color, with a
purple blush on their bellies.
Though not as flashy as some of the Malawi species, they have
a very unique look and a more natural beauty.
These fish also have turned out to be surprisingly feisty for
their size and full of personality.
It has turned out to be a very different experience than
keeping any other species I had kept up until that time.
Lamprologus meleagris male reaches approximately 2.5 inches,
while the female remains around 2 inches (or smaller) in length.
The diminutive size made it possible for me to originally
house them in a 20 gallon tank with a quartet of Chalinochromis
Unfortunately, it soon became apparent that a single pair (or
this particular pair, anyway) was going to be unable to cohabitate
The tank was outfitted originally with four neothauma shells
(Tanganyikan snail shells, which these fish utilize in the wild),
two per fish, but this was apparently insufficient for the male, who
seemed to think he should have all the shells, regardless of how
many were supplied to him. He ended up guarding viciously a grand
total of seven shells (the extra three were purchased from a craft
store), six of which he buried completely, and one which he kept for
his personal use.
The female was forced to hide behind the filter intake.
When another male and even more shells were added to the
tank, the first male seemed to decide that he didn’t have the
inclination to guard all the shells from two competitors, and
allowed both the new male and the female a shell.
I would have preferred to supply more females rather then
another male, but this was not possible at the time.
This set up worked until the first spawn.
By that time, the Chalinochromis had also reached
breeding age (both species were over a year old at their first
spawn), and it basically became chaos as everyone began having fry.
There were hostile mothers of both species, protective
fathers, and uncountable fry everywhere.
It became apparent that it was time for a new tank, so a 10
gallon was set up for the meleagris trio.
I had previously been unhappy with the gravel substrate, as
they loved to dig and rearrange the location and position of the
This time I chose a plain sand substrate, which has worked
out much better.
I also supplied them with caves, as the males were becoming
too large to hide in the shells.
Some plants were added at first, but one of the males kept
digging them up to get beneath the roots, so now the back wall has
rock work, while the front is left open for swimming space and
It has made such a difference for them to have their own
tank, that I would have it no other way.
All three are visible at pretty much all times, rather than
hiding from larger tank mates.
The only time the female hides is when she has eggs and when
the hatched fry are not yet able to leave the shell, a remarkable
contrast to her behavior in the previous tank, in which she stayed
hidden except to dart out to eat and to drag wayward fry back into
Breeding these guys has turned out to be remarkably easy.
The tank temperature is kept at around 76 F.
They are very unappreciative of large or frequent water
changes, making maintenance even easier.
At first I tried small (10% or less) water changes weekly,
but they responded better to slightly larger, less frequent changes,
about 20% every 3 weeks.
They tend to spawn right before every other water change.
Because of the infrequent water changes, I use a hang on
filter (Aquaclear, I like all the room in the back) rated for three
times the size required for the size of the tank.
They are, of course, being fed a varied diet consisting
predominantly of flakes, pellets, bloodworms, brine shrimp, and
The size of the spawns is very small and the fry grow very
slowly, leading to the one problem of keeping them in such a small
The fry need several months before they are old enough to
give away or sell, and though there are usually only roughly a dozen
hatched at one time, it doesn’t take very long for the tank to be
A female WILL eat her eggs when she deems there are too many
other inhabitants in the tank.
This creates the need for a fry tank if you want a steady
production of fry, as well as close observance of tank parameters at
I would suggest that if one wants to keep the fry with the
parents, a breeding pair would better benefit from a 20 gallon or
The spawning behavior is quite amazing.
The female lays bright yellow eggs within the shell, where
the male fertilized them. The
female then disappears into the shell, and rarely ventures out (and
never far) until the day comes where she begins to dig a large pit
in front of the mouth of the shell. When this “play pen” is complete, she then allows her fry
that are hardly even free swimming to venture forth. They hop rather than swim in this small area, and in and out
of the shell, under her watchful eye, to be retrieved and brought
back if they mistakenly venture too far from the group.
The male also stays guard, keeping any other tank mates from
approaching too closely to the fry.
During this period, the female is positively fierce and
won’t hesitate to attack a hand that happens to be cleaning the
tank! After a month or
so, when the fry have gained some size and are completely free
swimming, they leave the pit and shell, to take over shells of their
This species has also turned to be quite hardy.
I ordered my pair through mail order, and the airline managed
to lose the shipment. They
spent an additional twelve hours en route.
Still, they arrived in perfect condition and ate within hours
of being released into the tank. This particular pair also survived an accidental tank
“recycle”, never once showing any signs of stress.
All in all, the perfect fish for those with small tanks, the
beginning cichlid keeper, or someone who merely wants to try
Flenniken (Tn, USA) has been a close friend of MCH
for some years now. Being a hobbyist herself she has helped editing
articles (our official Editor-in -Chief). She finally decided to
write an article about her own pet friends and we hope she will be
back with more articles. Photos by Peter A. Lewis, his
original article on "shelldwellers" can be found here.
Bottom picture by the Author. See next page for more photos.
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