Lamprologus meleagris by Carli Flenniken

     When 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 300+  GH and KH, it seemed logical that Africans would be an appropriate choice.  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.

     The 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 brichardi juveniles.  Unfortunately, it soon became apparent that a single pair (or this particular pair, anyway) was going to be unable to cohabitate peacefully.  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 shells.  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 shells.  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 the shell.

    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 mosquito larvae.  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 tank.  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 terribly overstocked.  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 all times.  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 larger tank.


    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 own.

     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 something different.

Carli Flenniken (Tn, USA) has been a close friend of MCH for some years now. Being a hobbyist herself she has helped editing many MCH 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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 Page last modified on 09/01/2004  


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