Desktop Cichlids: The Shell-Dweller Recipe
by Matt Pedersen
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Intro Materials Care Species & Images

Basic Shell-Dweller Care & Behavior

Water Quality

The Dwarf Shell-Dwelling Cichlids are all native to Lake Tanganyika. As a general rule, Tanganyikan Cichlids like the following water parameters:

  • pH - 8.2-8.8
  • total hardness - 500 ppm
  • temperature - 77 to 82
  • ammonia - 0 ppm
  • nitrite - 0 ppm
  • nitrate - <20 ppm

It should be noted that these fish can tolerate values outside these ranges, but it is not recommended. Tanganyikan Cichlids prefer clean water with stable conditions. Rapid changes in the composition of the water can cause harm.


In a smaller aquarium, frequent small water changes are ideal. 10-20% weekly will keep your fish vigorous and promote healthy water conditions. If necessary, these fish will accept monthly water changes of 25%, but the weekly routine is better, and allows some flexibility should you miss a change. Filter maintenance must be performed routinely, usually on a monthly schedule. Be sure not to "over-clean" your biological filtration, as this could deplete your system of the beneficial bacteria which break-down fish waste.


When feeding Shell-Dwellers, it is best to feed small amounts frequently. Large feedings pass through the fish quickly, allowing less digestion to occur. Shell-Dwellers which are feed infrequently tend to be thin and stunted, whereas several small feedings per day allow the fish to become robust and healthy. Refer to the materials list of foods for the dietary preferences of Shell-Dwelling Cichlids.


Most Shell-Dwelling Cichlids are somewhat territorial. We have found that it is best to provide 2 or more shells per individual fish, allowing them to choose their homes. Furthermore, some of these fish will inhabit more than one shell, necessitating additional shells. Refer to the materials list to view possible types of shells.

Initial Stocking, Aggression, & Pairing

In a small aquarium such as a 10 gallon, 6 juvenile Shell-Dwellers can be housed (a group of 6 or larger statistically decreases the risk of receiving all fish of only one sex). You should add all your Shell-Dwellers at one time. This prevents any Cichlids from developing a "Home Court Advantage" with regards to newcomers. It is also wise to house only ONE species/variety in the tank to prevent any possible hybridizing.

Depending on the sexes of the juvenile fish, two future outcomes can be expected as the fish mature. If there is an excess of females, many Shell-Dwellers will live in a harem, where one male presides over several females which each establish territories within the male's territory. If there is an even sex ratio or an over-abundance of males, it is more likely that the female will choose a male partner and live in a monogamous pair arrangement. In this situation, it is more likely that subordinate fish will not be tolerated. These individuals can be noted by ragged fins, darkened coloration, or even being "pinned" into the upper corners of the tank. If this should occur, it is best to remove these individuals and allow the pair or pairs to live in peace.


Once the fish reach sexual maturity, the fun begins. You may notice a pair of fish or a female which becomes more aggressive and defensive of a territory. If everything is to their liking, the pair will soon start to produce fry. The eggs of all Shell-Dwellers are laid and fertilized in the shell, and the brood is usually guarded by both parents. You may not even notice your first tiny fry peaking out from inside a shell. At the time of hatching you should be sure to add small foods such as baby brine shrimp and powdered flake food to provided bite-size morsels for the new fish. As the fry grow, they become more adventuresome and move into empty shells within their parent's territories. New fry will appear periodically, and before you know it, your tank may be heavily populated with the offspring of your original fish. It is wise to "thin the herd" every so often. These fish can be removed to start new colonies in other tanks.

Suitable Companions for your Shell-Dwellers

You can keep other common aquarium fish with your Shell-Dwellers. The best companions are fast moving surface fish, such as Melanotaenia praecox (Dwarf Neon Rainbowfish) and various Danios (Zebra, Gold, Leopard, Pearl). These fish tend to occupy space which is irrelevant to the Cichlids, although they may receive some "attention" if the Shell-Dwellers are breeding.

Plecostomus and other catfish can be housed with the Shell-Dwellers, although sometimes with mixed results. Any bottom dwelling fish must tolerate the abuse of the Cichlids when they intrude upon the Shell-Dweller's territories. The best fish to try include Plecos of the genus Peckoltia and Ancistrus. These plecos tend to reach lengths of 4 inches, which is suitable for small aquariums. They are heavily armored and can usually handle some abuse. Avoid Corydoras and Otocinclus. These fish are usually murdered upon introduction.

Intro Materials Care Species & Images
Copyright 1999, 2000, 2001 Matt Pedersen & The Cichlid Factory.
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About the Author / Contact Info