Desktop Cichlids: The Shell-Dweller Recipe
by Matt Pedersen
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Shell-Dwellers Materials List You will need most or all of the following items to set up an aquarium suitable for Shell-Dwellers:

  • 1 10 gallon aquarium (20"L x 10"W x 12"H) or larger
  • 1 Fluorescent Light with Top for a 10 gallon aquarium. A glass top will allow for a second bulb if you choose to raise live plants.
  • 1 External or Internal Filtration Unit (no undergravel filters)
  • 1 50 watt submersible heater (most submersible heaters last longer and are more accurate)
  • 1 thermometer
  • 10 lbs.+ of fine grade crushed coral sand
  • A Small Net
  • A bottle of Dechlorinator
  • Water Changing Equipment
  • Cichlid Additives (Cichlid Buffer, Cichlid Salts, Cichlid Trace Elements)
  • A Full range test kit (pH, Hardness, Alkalinity, Ammonia, Nitrite, Nitrate) (optional)
  • A variety of the appropriate foods. (Cichlid Flakes, Brine Shrimp (Adult and/or Baby), other small, meaty freeze-dried or frozen foods.
  • A container of Vitamin Supplement
  • Shells & Other Decorations
  • Tank Background (optional)

The Aquarium

A 10 gallon aquarium is suitable for the fish we are planning on keeping. There are no special requirements beyond this. If you choose to set up an Eclipse® System by Marineland, a Black Seal® Aquarium by All Glass looks especially stylish and is worth the extra buck.

The Lighting

If using a standard aquarium, we suggest a fluorescent light to view your fish. Fluorescent fixtures are more expensive up-front, but they do not overheat, cost less to run, last longer, and provide a truer color of light. If you are planning to raise aquatic plants, a fixture which holds 2 15 watt bulbs is suggested. There are several options available to you.

The Filtration

Again, there are many options. You must avoid undergravel filtration because Shell-Dwellers will dig in the substrate, disrupting the proper function of the filter. Additionally, these fish appreciate sand, which is not compatible with an undergravel filtration system.

Internal filtration includes sponge filters, box filters, and small motorized sponge filters. While this type of filtration can be less expensive up-front, they are much less effective and tend to require more frequent maintenance than the following types of filtration.

The easiest system to work and the best value currently is the Eclipse® System by Marineland. This system offers the filtration and lighting as a single overhead unit. This type of setup is ideal for Shell-Dwellers.

Alternate external filtration includes "Hang on The Back" filtration and small canister filters. If you decide to raise live plants, a small canister filter such as the Fluval 103 or the comparable Eheim will be required. Canister filters can be set up to minimize water surface agitation, which limits gas exchange and leaves more C02 available to your live plants.

Regardless of the filtration you choose, be it has mechanical, chemical, and biological filtration.

Temperature Control

Submersible heaters come a variety of brands. All are watertight. Most of these heaters provided easy adjustment and are conveniently hidden behind the tank decor. We have found that submersible heaters tend to have a longer lifespan and are less likely to break down in the "on/heating" mode, which offsets any additional costs at the time of purchase. A good thermometer is necessary to monitor your heater's performance. There are several types available, from alcohol to digital. The digital are the most accurate but also more expensive.

The Substrate

As listed, you will need 10 pounds or more of fine grade crushed coral sand. Ideally you will need enough to be 2 inches deep. This substrate allows the Shell-Dwelling Cichlids to bury their shells and otherwise rearrange the decor. Crushed coral sand also helps maintain the hardness and alkalinity of your water, reducing the risk of a drastic drop in pH which can harm your fish.

Basic Aquarium Care Items

This includes a small net (4-5"), dechlorinator, and water changing equipment. There are too many varieties of these products to examine in detail. However, they are details which should not be overlooked or forgotten.

Cichlid Specific Supplements

These included Cichlid Buffers, Salts, and Trace Elements. Cichlid buffers help to maintain the pH and alkalinity of your water. The Cichlid salts help recreate the natural water chemistry which they evolved in. These salts help maintain proper coloration and help to prevent growth defects. Cichlid Trace Elements are essential for the well-being of your Shell-Dwellers. Most Tanganyikan fish are susceptible to deficiencies of iodine or magnesium; without the addition of trace elements the likelihood of gill tumors and other ailments increases drastically. All of these products drastically improve the chance of successful spawnings in your aquarium.

Water Testing Kits

Although not essential, water quality is the first place to check when problems arise. Routine testing of your water will help detect potential problems before they occur, thus allowing you time to correct the situation before you loose your fish. Although working with these kits can seem like a lesson in chemistry, they are easy to use and not beyond the comprehension of most individuals. We feel they are a sound investment to help keep your fish healthy.

A Wide, Varied Diet

All fish do best when given a wide variety of foods. This practice helps to ensure a balanced diet. Furthermore, if one food should lack a needed nutrient, another may provide it. Shell-Dwelling Neolamprologus are micropredators by nature, so a protein based diet including such items as Cichlid Flake Foods, freeze-dried or frozen brine shrimp, daphnia, lobster eggs, plankton, and similar foods are ideal. When Cichlid Fry are present in the aquarium, newly-hatched brine shrimp, microworms, and powdered or crushed flake food should be added to the aquarium to provide ample fodder for these baby fish.

Vitamin Supplements

Though not essential, liquid vitamin supplements help replace nutrients lost in the processing of food. The major benefits you will see when using a vitamin supplement can include increased vigor, better color, longer lifespans, and bigger spawns.

Tank Decorations

This can include any type of inert, non-metallic rock. Slates, Sedimentary Rocks, Petrified Wood, Granite, Lava, and Tufa are some examples of acceptable types. Always be sure to purchase your decorations from a pet store, as these rocks are sure to be clean and non-harmful to your fish. Garden Supply stores may inadvertently spray harmful pesticides and fertilizers on their rocks, so it's safest to stick to your local pet store. Remember, bulk rock may seem expensive, but most of the purchase price reflects the costs of transporting this rock from the quarry to you.

Driftwood is a two-edged sword. It can be very attractive. However, it can and will stain your water with tanic acid, turning it yellow or even brown. This acid will also react with the alkalinity and pH of your water, lowering both and potentially creating an unsuitable environment for your Cichlids. If you decide to use driftwood in your aquarium, be sure to change your activated carbon frequently and use buffer in a weekly routine as a prophylactic to prevent pH drops.

With regards to the shells required by the Shell-Dwelling Cichlids, there are a few suggestions. Marine shells sold in pet stores for hermit crabs and saltwater aquaria are suitable. The shells of deceased freshwater apple snails and mystery snails are also acceptable. If you want a close approximation of the true Neothauma shell, empty shells of the edible snail can be purchased at premium delicatessens. Small terra-cotta flower pots and Cichlid caves will also provide the necessary cover. Should you require a decor which allows easy removal of the fish, barnacle shells are excellent. Regardless of the "shell" you choose, it is wise to clean it, boil it, and rinse it thoroughly to remove any remains of the previous occupant!

Any type of plant is suitable for the Shell-Dweller aquarium. Emphasis must be placed on the fact that floor space is the paramount requirement for Shell-Dwellers, so plant sparingly. Ideal live plants which tolerate the conditions required by these Cichlids include Anubias, Microsorium (Java Fern), Java Moss, Apondgenton, Cryptocaryne, Sagittaria, and Vallisneria.

Tank Background

Although not necessary, it is highly recommended that you place a background on the outside of your aquarium. This hides the cords and tubes behind the aquarium. I suggest a solid colored blue or black background, which places the emphasis on viewing the contents of your aquarium.

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Copyright © 1999, 2000, 2001 Matt Pedersen & The Cichlid Factory.
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