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Tips for Shell-Dwelling Cichlids

Blake B

Posted on October 01 2018

Of the many varieties of African cichlids that exist, some are shell dwelling cichlids, also known as shell-dwellers. This category of cichlids is usually from Lake Tanganyika, and utilize the empty shells of snails and other creatures in which to breed and seek shelter. There's something inherently appealing about shell-dwellers, I think, because like us, and unlike most fish, they have a specific enclosed space which they call home.

This post is all about shell dwellers, including how they are unique, what their needs are, and guidelines for finding the right shell for them.

Types of Shell-Dwelling Cichlids

Shell-dwellers are typically categorized into groupings of species, all of which have slightly different, unique characteristics. Of course, the one thing they all have in common is that they utilize shells, in one way or another. Some, such as Lepidiolamprologus, are smaller than their non shell-dwelling cichlid cousins of the same variety, because this smaller size enables them to more effectively utilize shells. Others, such as the Brevis group, have large heavy bodies, and therefore require larger shells.

One of the most colorful and also aggressive varieties is the Ocellatus, so if you want to have an aquarium with just one or two very colorful shell-dwellers, these can be a good choice. Size and temperament, as with all cichlids, will be something you'll have to take into careful consideration when choosing your shell-dweller, and what size of aquarium they will dwell in. Another perk of shell-dwellers is that they pick up and move the shells they live in, bury them in sand, and engage in other similarly interesting behaviors.

Shell-dwelling cichlids are carnivorous fish which can feed on a variety of aquatic creatures, including snails, crustaceans, and broods of other fish. In terms of their diet in captivity, you will provide them with the same food you would other cichlids, but their carnivorous habits are more useful to know when you consider the possibility of allowing them to live with other creatures in the aquarium. With snails, for instance, there is a good chance they will eat them.

Shells for Your Shell-Dwellers

The most popular type of shell for shell-dwelling cichlids is that of the Neothauma tanganyicense, a type of snail native to Lake Tanginyica. However, you can present your cichlids with multiple shell options, and ultimately the decision will be a matter of their personal preference. Who can say what makes a cichlid like one shell over another? There could be many factors involved, most especially the size and shape of the shell relative to the female.
Different species of shell-dwellers can be more or less picky, and ultimately you have to just present them with multiple options, and see what they like. Luckily, shells are not particularly expensive, so you can probably just pick up a variety at your local aquarium store, or order them online, and hopefully find your cichlid a shell that they will love.

Other Aquarium Requirements

There are a couple more things to note about your shell-dweller setup, besides the shells that you provide. Firstly, the water should be hard (high mineral content), and alkaline. This is a general guideline for cichlids, but is especially important for shell dwellers. It should also be relatively free of nitrates.


The other is that the ideal substrate for shell-dwellers is sand, instead of pebbles. This most faithfully mimics their natural environment, and comes with the added benefit of the cichlids’ using the sand to cover their shell, or flipping it up into the water in a way that is highly entertaining to watch.

I hope this gives you some good ideas about whether or not shell dwellers are right for you, and also how best to prepare and handle them, once you have them.

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