Several years ago at one of the annual American Cichlid Association (ACA) conventions, I overheard a conversation about some shell dwelling cichlids. Being a dwarf cichlid enthusiast myself, my interest was piqued upon hearing the word “shellies.” I wasn’t eavesdropping but I clearly heard something equivalent to “You should check with Chris Carpenter. He keeps all kinds of shellies.” Like any hobbyist who constantly builds their knowledge base, I filed that name away.
In the years since that convention, I have heard Chris’ name mentioned numerous times. In an effort to ensure that my interviews on the blog cover all corners of cichlid keeping, I needed to get someone to talk about shell dwelling species. Because he is widely regarded as an expert on these fish, I looked him up and sent him a note about doing an interview. He promptly replied and happily agreed.
Chris is currently the Vice President of Grand Valley Aquarium Club in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He has won numerous awards related to the hobby, including Breeder of the year, Aquarist of the year, Master Breeder, Old World Cichlid Specialist, and Master. In addition to giving regular talks at his club, he has been a speaker at ACA conventions in the past. He has extensive experience working with and breeding multiple species of shell dwelling species, not all of them from Lake Tanganyika.
Without further ado, here we go!
Let’s begin by telling the readers how you got started in the cichlid hobby.
I had an aquarium when I was young, thanks to my father, and a couple tanks in my 20s, but I truly became an aquarium addict when I swapped liquid addictions. I had a pretty serious alcohol and drug addiction that consumed my life. When I gave that up, I needed a hobby/addiction that would fill the void. My wife had already started a venture into the world of cichlids. I was fascinated and started researching fish for her to take care of. Eventually I took over maintenance and brought it to a whole other level. The first cichlids I kept and bred were Pelvicachromis pulcher and I still have a soft spot for West African cichlids. I became intrigued by a pair of Neolamprologus brichardi at a local shop, purchased them, and eventually traded them back to the store because I was ill equipped to deal with their territorial/aggressive behavior. The fish I traded them for were ‘Lamprologus’ multifasciatus, and my love for shell dwellers took off. I made it my goal to acquire every shell dweller I could find. In the last 13 years I’ve kept and bred a lot of them. It’s become hard for me to find species that I haven’t kept. If I see shell dwellers in a shop, I’m always interested and will often purchase them, even if I’ve kept them multiple times before. I think I will always have at least a couple species of shellies in my fishroom.
Talk a little about the various shell dwelling species you’re currently keeping.
I currently keep ‘Lamprologus’ multifacsiatus, ‘L.’ similis, ‘L.’ calliurus, ‘L.’ ornatipinnis, Altolamprologus compressiceps “Sumbu”, and the Malawi shell dweller Metriaclima lanisticola. At the moment, I also have a couple of my favorite “opportunistic shell spawners” – ‘Lamprologus’ caudopuntatus and ‘L.’ leloupi (not to be confused with Neolalmprologus leleupi). I have an interest in and keep all types of fish, but shell dwellers are my passion.
You have significant experience with Lake Tanganyikan shellies. What are a couple of your favorite species and why?
My favorite probably won’t excite anybody, but honestly it would be ‘Lamprologus’ multifasciatus. They’re the fish that got me hooked on shell dwellers, and I still absolutely love them. They’re very active diggers, excellent parents, and you don’t run into a lot of the conspecific aggression that can accompany some of the other shellies. They’re the ideal fish for someone who wants to venture into the world of shell dwellers or cichlids in general. I really like ‘Lamprologus’ stappersi as well, also known as the “pearly ocellatus” because of the beautiful pearl spots in their body and fins. They have tons of attitude and, in my opinion, are the most attractive of the shell dwellers.
Personally, I’ve always been a huge fan of Neolamprologus ocellatus because of their big personality. What advice would you give someone just starting out with these wonderful fish?
I like to refer to them as the bulldogs of the shell dwellers. Definitely a ton of attitude in these little fish. I think the key is to get a compatible pair. They’re a harem spawner, but I find that most people love shellies because they can keep them in smaller tanks. Smaller tanks don’t typically work when trying to create a harem, but do work well with pairs. I would suggest starting with a group of six and pay attention to behavior. If two don’t seem to hate each other, remove the others and see what happens. If that pairing doesn’t work out, repeat the process. If you want to keep them in a harem or group situation, I’d suggest using a larger aquarium and use plants or rocks to break lines of sight.
In terms of difficulty breeding, which shellie species rank in your top two and why?
I consider almost all the shell dwellers pretty easy to spawn. If you’re involved with a local aquarium club and participate in the breeder award program, shell dwellers should be on your list of fish to acquire. With that said, I have had a couple challenges. Altolamprologus compressiceps “Sumbu”, a dwarf compressiceps, took me quite a while to get a proper pairing and get them comfortable enough to breed. It took me close to two years, but ultimately patience prevailed. I’ve also had my struggles with Neolamprologus kungweensis. I didn’t have any problem getting this species to spawn, but raising the fry was a real challenge for me. The fry are ridiculously small. After approximately ten unsuccessful attempts to raise fry, I eventually moved the adults out of the tank instead of moving the fry and I was successful.
What species would you recommend for beginners and why?
Definitely ‘Lamprologus’ multifasciatus. They’re the most common shell dweller and can be found at a reasonable price at shops or local auctions. They don’t come with a lot of the aggression issues that accompany cichlids in general. Also, they breed prolifically and raise multiple generations of fry in the tank. I know I was hooked on cichlids when I saw babies for the first time, and these guys breed pretty readily.
Neothauma tanganyicense shells, which are endemic to Lake Tanganyika, aren’t always readily available in the hobby. Describe some shell alternatives or favorites that you would recommend that are more easily obtainable.
I searched for years to get my hands on some Neothauma shells, I eventually got enough to fill a couple tanks, thanks in part to Pam Chin for sending me a goodie package from one of her trips to Lake Tanganyika. Escargot and Turbo snail shells are what I would recommend. They can be easily found on eBay or Amazon. I’ve also found escargot at Walmart and turbo shells at hobby/craft stores. I also recommend buying enough shells so that there will be at least 3 to 4 shells per fish. I’ve also had some success using barnacle clusters, which add a unique look to a tank.
Though I haven’t tried them personally, I am aware some shellie keepers have had success using PVC elbows in lieu of actual shells. Even though you prefer to keep things natural, have you tried these and, if so, what are your thoughts on them compared to shells?
I’ve never tried them either. I’m a stickler for having my tanks appear natural. I’ve heard mixed reviews from others. Some say they don’t breed as well with them, and others say it makes no difference. The advantage to using PVC elbows with a cap is that the fish can be easily removed by taking off the cap. I will say that I have given away a lot of shells over the years because of my unwillingness to use PVC.
I do have a technique to get the fish out of their shells, which involves raising the shell and allowing the fish to follow its natural tendency to go low. It works with some species, not so much with others, and of course there’s always that stubborn fish that just won’t leave the comfort of its shell. I’ve been thinking lately that I need to test PVC elbows just to have firsthand knowledge.
If you will, talk a little about the substrates you prefer for your shellies. Specifically, do you have sand preferences and, if so, what are they and why do you prefer them?
I always recommend using sand as a substrate for shell dwellers. Some are obsessive diggers. Others like to bury their shells with just the opening showing, and some dig pits just before fry venture out of the shell. I’ve had people tell me they use gravel and their fish do just fine, and my response is “why would you want to keep them in gravel?”. It takes away half of the fun of watching shellies. Digging is natural for them and, like I alluded to earlier, I believe you should keep all fish in as natural an environment as possible.
As far as my preference in sand, I prefer pool filter sand in either white or tan, it’s cheap and doesn’t compact as much, which can lead to anaerobic pockets. I do have some older tanks with play sand and Ive never had any adverse effects from anaerobic pockets, but all new tanks I set up get pool filter sand. I should also mention that I live in an area with fairly hard water. Lake Tanganyika has very hard water. If you live in an area where the water is soft, you may want to go with a CaribSea cichlid sand or mix some aragonite into pool filter sand for a more economical solution.
I don’t recommend using black blasting sand for shellies because of their affinity for digging by scooping sand into their mouth. The black blasting sand is an abrasive and can cause damage to cichlid mouths and gills.
What do you believe are the biggest challenges facing cichlid hobbyists today?
I think one of the biggest challenges is finding accurate information. With the Internet age and social media comes a plethora of misinformation. Trying to weed through it all can be challenging. I always suggest that people buy books from reputable authors, ask an experienced hobbyist, and join a local aquarium club. I’m definitely not saying that searching the Internet for information is a bad thing. I do it all the time. Just make sure to cross reference or find trustworthy sources.
Is there anything about shell dwellers, or the hobby in general, that you would like to mention that we didn’t cover?
If you’re looking for a fish with tons of personality, beauty, easy to breed and can be kept in smaller aquariums, give shell dwellers a try, I promise you won’t regret it. On the hobby in general, I would just say keep the fish that you enjoy and get active in the community through a local club. I’ve met some incredible people in this hobby, and it has honestly changed my life
A quick note on shell dwellers is that most are in what I call “genus limbo” and have been for over 20 years. At the moment, they are referred to as exLamprologus or single quotes around ‘Lamprologus’, meaning a fish that is awaiting reclassification. Information still floats around with them classified in Neolamprologus or Lamprologus. I’d recommend checking under all names when searching online. Hopefully we’ll have some clarification in the future.