The Dwarf Shell-Dwelling Cichlid

Whether you are new to cichlids or are an old pro at the fish keeping hobby and are looking for a small, personality packed fish to liven things up, then consider this little African gem from Lake Tanganyika!:)

Lake Tanganyika

The natural environment that the Neolamprologus brevis lives in is Lake Tanganyika, which is the world’s longest freshwater lake equaling 420 miles in length and is the world’s second deepest lake at 4,708 feet. The width of the lake ranges from 10 miles to 42 miles and covers a total of 12,700 square miles. WOW, that is a huge body of water. Even though this is a very large amount of water, only the upper 325 feet to 650 feet have oxygenated water, suitable for fish to inhabit. The shallowest depth reaches an average temperature of 80°F (26.7°C), while the deepest reaches an average of 75°F (24°C). Due to the very low temperature difference of only 5°F, the oxygenated and non-oxygenated waters very rarely mix. If there is a disturbance of great proportions, the non-oxygenated water
could be pushed up to the surface killing a large amount of fish.

The majority of fresh water that flows into Lake Tanganyika is very high in mineral content and when the lake water evaporates under the hot African sun, it leaves all of the minerals behind making the lake’s water very alkaline and very hard. The average water parameters are pH 7.5–9.0, GH (general hardness) of 10°-20° dGH and a KH (carbonate hardness) of 15°-18° dKH. If your water source is acidic and soft, don’t give up, because there are products on the market to help bring your water within acceptable limits to keep these beautiful fish.

The Neolamprologus brevis can be found in the shallow, sandy zones of Lake Tanganyika. They dwell in the empty shells of the Neothauma snail giving them the fitting title of "shell dwellers".

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Neolamprologus brevis will spend the first 2-3 weeks getting to know their keeper, acting shy and withdrawn and rarely leaving their shell when people are around, getting used to the movements and shadows that surround their tank. Once a trusting bond has been formed, their true nature bursts through. Although they are generally a peaceful fish, who do not seek out unnecessary trouble, if you keep more than one male, you can expect a nipped or torn fin occasionally.

Dueling Males

Dueling Males

I have never seen any serious injury from a squabble between males but you should always be on the lookout for overzealous aggression between tankmates. However, all bets are off during spawning!:)

As with many cichlids, shell dwellers like to rearrange the décor and substrate in the tank. It uses its’ mouth as a shovel, plowing through the sand, while using its’ tail to throw the sand behind to cover its’ shell, until only the opening is visible. Any sand that is thrown into the inside of the main shell is promptly scooped up and given the *patooie* outside of the territory. Even an unsuspecting snail used to clean up the tank will be scooped up and moved across territory lines if it wanders too close to the shell. These shell dwellers will even go so far as to bury neighboring shells to prevent someone from moving in too close to them. You may also wake up one morning and find their shell in a totally different part of the tank from where it was the night before. Once they are satisfied with their choice of shell and location, they will flash or scratch against it and on the substrate around it to mark their territory boundaries.

You can expect a nip or two if you stick your hand too close to their shell or in their territory, and that big, bad tank siphon will also get its’ come up’uns during weekly maintenance. These little fish can behave like piranhas if they feel seriously threatened.

Brevis Evil Baster

“I told you NOT to go there!” 🙂

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Tank set-up

Due to the smaller size of the Neolamprologus brevis, they do not demand a large sized tank like other African cichlids. They inhabit the lower portion of the tank and generally guard a territory of approximately 12 square inches. A 10 gallon tank will hold 2 males and 2 females adequately but a 20-gallon (20-long) tank would be ideal in allowing them to inhabit larger territories and to have room for fry if they spawn.

Tanganykian Biotope

Tanganykian Biotope

Sand is the preferred substrate due to their natural digging habits but finely crushed coral or small rounded gravel may also be used. You don’t want to use any substrate that may lower the pH or GH levels of the water or compromise the stability of the water chemistry. Substrate with sharp jagged edges should not be used in order to avoid mouth injuries. CaribSea Aragonite is a good substrate to use as it contains all of the trace elements that they need. If you choose this substrate, then get Aragamax Select with a grain size of 0.5–1.0 mm in diameter. This size is very fine, like Black Tahitian Moon sand.

Even though the Neolamprologus brevis dwell in empty Neothauma snail shells in the wild, they will readily accept any shell that they can fit in. Unpainted hermit crab shells, Apple snail shells, small conch shells, and most shells found in hobby and craft stores that have not been chemically treated may be used. Allow 2-3 shells per fish so they can try different shells on for size to find just the right fit.

Brevis Shells Top

Brevis Shells Openings

Examples of Suitable Shells

Choose your tank decorations in any style that is to your liking. If you are going for a more natural look, then rock caves or a couple of small sandy slopes may fit into your aquascaping plans. Again, avoid any decoration that may cause the water parameters to waiver or become acidic such as peat, pinewood, and certain kinds of driftwood that leach tannins into the water. Make sure that all decorations are aquarium safe.

Now, what about the greenery? The sandy zone of Lake Tanganyika is very sparsely vegetated so plants are not an absolute must but if you want plants in your tank to add color or variety, then artificial or live plants can be used. If you decide to use live plants, remember that these fish are substrate diggers, so you can expect the plants to be uprooted the majority of the time as they rearrange their territories. Your selection of live plants will be somewhat limited due to the water’s required high pH > 8.0 and GH > 15° dGH. Some options for live plants that can survive in this highly alkaline and hard environment are:

Low Rooting Plants:

  • Java fern (Microsorum pteropus)
  • Small Anubias species (Anubias barteri var nana)
  • Java moss (Vesicularia dubyana)

Background Plants:

  • Valisneria americana
  • Valisneria spiralis
  • Valisneria gigantea
  • Varieties of Hornwort (Ceratophyllum sp.)
  • Onion plant (Crinum thaianum)
  • Water Sprite (Ceratopteris thalictroides)
  • Some varieties of the Amazon species such as the Amazon sword plant Echinodorus cordifolius (Radican Sword)

You may also want to consider using a pot for your live plants, choose floating plants, or fasten the roots of the plants to the décor to prevent them from being unrooted.

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Shell dwellers require water with a pH greater than 8.0 and a GH (general hardness) greater than 15° dGH. If your source water has a pH less than 8.0, you can increase this by adding Tanganyikan pH Buffer (SeaChem), Waters of the World (Mardel) or Aragamax Select (CaribSea). The Neolamprologus brevis lives in the sandy shallow parts of Lake Tanganyika, and therefore, thrive in a stable tank temperature of 80° F (26.7°C).

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Neolamprologus brevis will readily accept most prepared foods such as cichlid pellet food, cichlid flake food, frozen bloodworms, frozen brine shrimp, and frozen beefheart but if you want to make them very happy, then feed live baby or adult brine shrimp. The brevis will swim through the water with their mouths open scooping up the bbs. Please do not feed freeze-dried food as this can lead to constipation.

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There is very little current in Lake Tanganyika, so your filter should be strong enough to filter the tank properly yet it should not produce a strong current throughout the tank. I recommend a filter with an adjustable outflow, like an AquaClear filter, or you may need to place a decoration or artificial plant at the point of outflow or use sponge media around the uptake in order to slow the filter’s outflow and tank current.

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Compatible Tankmates

When choosing tankmates for the Neolamprologus brevis, keep in mind where in the tank they dwell and what shelter they dwell in. You should not select other shell dwelling Tanganyikan cichlids unless you have a very large tank with an ample amount of shells for them to choose from. Tankmates should dwell in different portions of the tank. Some examples of compatible tankmates are Julidochromis, Cyprichromis, Paracyprichromis, Synodontis, Apple snails, Ramshorn snails and non-shell dwelling Neolamprologus species such as the cave dwelling species Neolamprologus Pulcher and Neolamprologus Brichardi. Please use caution when mixing fish of the same complex as to avoid hybridization. Any other tankmates will have to have their needs met as well so keep this in mind when planning the aquascaping and community of your Tanganyikan tank.

Synopetricola catfish

Synopetricola catfish

Neolamprologus pulcher
Neolamprologus brichardi

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Tanganyikan cichlids in general are said to be some of the easiest fish to spawn. This is definitely the case with the Neolamprologus brevis. Sexing young juveniles is almost impossible but as they age you will notice differences other than just size. The male has a more pronounced “gruff” bulldog appearance on his face and has a light cream colored band that runs between two brownish red bands, extending around the upper outer edge of the dorsal (upper) fin and upper outer edge of the caudel (tail) fin. The female’s colored bands are hardly noticeable and her facial features are much more petite and almost feminine looking.

Neolamprologus brevis male
Neolamprologus brevis female

They will reach their maximum size (females at 1.5 inches and males at 2.5 inches) and sexual maturity at approximately 10 months of age.

Size comparison of male and female at sexual maturity.

In my experience, as long as Neo brevis are fed meaty foods, kept in good water parameters, are in good health and have sufficent shells, then at least one male and one female will pair up and you will wind up with fry! There is no need to relocate the pair into a separate spawning tank unless they share their habitat with a predatory species that may harm or kill the fry. Once a male and female have formed a bond as a pair, they will stay monogamous and share the same shell throughout their lives. The family shell is usually chosen by the female and it may or may not be large enough for the male to fit his entire body into but they will both defend their shell and its surrounding territory with equal ferocity.

When a female is in the mood to spawn and her belly is swollen with eggs, any non-paired male in the tank will try to win her affection. She may swim coyly around the pair’s territiory and any bachelor within eye shot of her will dance a jig and try to persuade her to leave her current mate for him and all his studliness. The female’s mate will never be too far away from her, making sure that she behaves herself.

The female will sometimes signal the male that she is ready to spawn by nudging him on the sides or belly and then they will head to their shell. The female enters the shell and the male will give her gentle nudges, while she is laying eggs, almost as if he is reassuring her. The male will sometimes enter the shell with her still inside, if they can both fit. Other times, she will exit the shell and then he will enter it. If he cannot fit in the shell at all, he will fertilize the eggs by straddling his body across the opening using his pectoral fins to block the entrance as he releases sperm.

Male releasing sperm into shell during spawning.

In my experience, when the female in the tank is ready to spawn, the entire tank is in an uproar! Non-paired males try their hardest to participate in the spawning, while the female’s mate expends a lot of energy trying to keep them away. My 2 non-paired males in the Neo brevis tank will use a tag team tactic. As the father is chasing one male away the other male seizes the opportunity of an unguarded shell. Carpe diem!! 🙂 Sometimes spawning lasts for a few hours and other times it is carried on into the next day.

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Once spawning is completed and the tank is now back to its normal, quiet, day to day activities, the father will spend every waking moment guarding the mother and the brood of eggs that now lay in the shell. You will most likely not see the mother outside the shell for the first few days after spawning. She will stay inside the shell and fan the eggs, clean out any debris, and may occassionally pop her head out to grab some food if it is within her reach.

The eggs should hatch about 72 hours after spawning and then the mother will start spending time outside the shell again but never straying very far. The male and female will both continue to share the duty of guarding the shell and their territory, never letting another fish, snail, or human hand to get too close without getting in a nip or two. At feeding time, the pair takes turns eating so that the shell is never left unguarded and the male is very gracious about letting the female go and hunt as she is very hungry after performing the initial parental duties.

Mated Pair

When the fry are approximately one week old, the mother will start collecting food for the fry and taking it into the shell. Since the mother masticates (chews) the food for the newborns, it is easier to feed flake food or to feed baby brine shrimp, so that she can simply collect the food in her mouth and without chewing it, spit it into the shell. This doesn’t mean that the other tankmates cannot have their regularly varied diet during this time. You can simply substitute a portion of the tank’s regular food ration with something that the mother can take to her young.

At the two week mark, the parents start letting any adventurous fry come out and explore the surrounding area around the shell. Any fry outside of the shell prior to this age get scooped up by one of the parents and put back into the shell.

Between 2.5 to 3 weeks of age any fry that have not wandered out of the shell by themselves are helped out by the mother. She will go deep into the back of the shell and wiggle her tail to flush out any fry. You may also notice during this time that the mother is filling up with eggs and preparing for her next brood. Given the right conditions and food, a pair of Neolamprologus brevis have the capability to spawn every 4 weeks.

Eggy female N. brevis

Now that the babies are out in open water, what happens next?!? Don’t panic, the parents will continue to guard the fry while they are in their territory and tend to corral them into one location for safe keeping. At this age the fry are not very good swimmers and do more bouncing then actual swimming but it is up to them to hunt and feed themselves. Although young, they have no problem catching freshly hatched BBS and tearing off small pieces of flake food. Both parents will attack anyone or anything that comes into the territory and will retrieve any fry that attempt to travel beyond the family territory.

N. brevis fry kept in the tank corner by their parents.

In my original Neolamprologus brevis tank, there are one mated pair (alpha male and female) and two unpaired males. The other two males have never showed any aggression or any real interest in the fry of the mated pair. At six weeks old, the fry come and go in the other males’ territories without so much as a passing glance. I would like to assume that the non-related adult fish realize that the fry are of no threat but I always stand ready to scoop and move the fry in case the situation changes.

Unpaired male with non-related fry living in his territory.

The Neolamprologus brevis fry are very slow growing overall but using freshly hatched baby brine shrimp seems to speed things along a bit better than a strict flake or pelleted diet. At approximately 4 to 5 months of age, you can see the males starting to surpass the females in growth.

Juvenile male and female N. brevis

From this point on, there really isn’t any care requirements that differ from the adults. Keep good water parameters, a well balanced diet, a stable temp, and sit back and enjoy! These are a delightful fish to keep and I would recommend them to both beginning and advanced cichlid fishkeepers alike.

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