Neolamprologus brevis is one of the more commonly seen Tanganyikan shell dwelling cichlids in the hobby. Unlike most other shell dwellers, they often live in areas with low shell densities, so they have come up with a living arrangement that is unique in the shell dwelling world Ė both the male and the female share the same shell. This ability to thrive in areas with low shell densities is the reason that they are found throughout the lake. While most books will have you believe they always share a shell, my pair has a different opinion on this issue. Sometimes they share the same shell, but other times they each have their own shell. Iím not sure why they only live together on a part-time basis, but since they have spawned three times it is obvious the relationship works for them!
As with other Tanganyikan cichlids, they prefer a pH of 7.8 to 9 with hard water. Temperature of around 78 degrees is perfect. Males grow to a maximum of about 6 cm whereas females reach about 4 cm in length. This size differential is one of the keys to differentiating the sexes. The male also simply looks more robust and has, in my opinion, more of an Altolamprologus facial profile than the female does. Except for these minor differences, the two sexes are morphologically identical.
There are two commonly seen varieties in the trade Ė the sunspot and the "standard" brevis:
- The sunspot brevis is a brownish-mauve colored fish with a bright golden spot on each side of the fish right behind the pectoral fins. During periods of stress, the fish develops light tan stripes down its sides.
- The "standard" brevis is actually from Kigoma, Tanzania. It has a brownish body with 9 tan stripes down its side.
Both variants also have florescent blue lines beneath the eyes when they are seen in the right light.
Due to their small size, this shelldweller will do well as a pair in a 10-gallon tank. Actually, you might be able to keep two pairs in a 10 gallon tank. They have very small territory requirements and certainly the smallest territorial requirements of any cichlid Iíve ever kept. My brevis have never actively defended an area larger than about 6" to 10" around their main shell. Granted, in their area, they will attack my hand or the gravel vacuum, but they are rather peaceful with other tank mates.
They need at least one medium sized shell to share, and I like to provide a few extra shells for them to choose from and then for fry to move into. My current brevis pair is in a 20-gallon long tank with a trio of N. caudopunctatus and a pair of white cloud mountain minnows. I actually prefer to keep brevis with other fish because they have this wonderful head-down with all-fins-up territorial display they put on (both the male and the female do this) whenever another fish gets too close to their shell.
As far as food, Iíve found brevis to be little vacuum cleaners with fins. Mine eat flake, pellets, frozen bloodworms, frozen brine shrimp, live brine, etcÖthese fish are simply not picky eaters.
One of the greatest charms of these little fish is that they are a devoted couple. As I mentioned earlier, mine donít always share a shell. The male has one home Ė a medium sized conch shell. The female will spend about half her time sharing the conch with the male, but the other half is spent in one of two smaller snail shells she moves next to the conch. Iíve never seen her move the shells, I assume she does it at night, but one of the two shells (never both though!) is always pressed up against the conch. She also, again at night, tends to bury the shell she is using right up to the mouth of the shell. In contrast, the male never buries or moves the larger shell. In the event of danger, the male will herd the female into a shell and attack the intruder. If his attack does not drive off the intruder, he will stuff himself in the same shell with the female Ė thus providing a layer of defense for the female who is farther inside the shell.
While the pair is quite attached to each other, I was surprised to find that none of my brevis have ever been good parents. I never actually see them breed since they do this in their shell, but I do see periodic mating dances that tend to hint that fry will arrive in a few days or weeks. Once the fry emerge from the shells they hide in the gravel and beneath any shells. The parents do not eat the fry, but Iíve never once seen them defend the fry or try to shepherd them into a shell when danger approaches.
Update: My brevis pair are back courting again now that they are the lone cichlids in the tank, and I'm pretty sure they have eggs in a shell (or will soon). I watched my apple snail hanging out on top of their shell. I'm pretty sure the snail has developed a taste for cavier. Anyway, the brevis were both pretty upset by the snail being on top of their shell, and the female kept pushing at it and flaring at the snail (she even dug out the sand beneath it so the shell would fall - I assume she was trying to dislodge the snail this way.) but she was getting nowhere fast. The male came over, sized up the situation, grabbed the snail by she shell edge, and threw the snail which must weigh 3-4 times more than him a good 2 inches from the shell! I'd read of this behavior with shellies, but never had I seen it before myself. Well, snails being snails, he was back up top of their shell in no time flat, and the brevis threw the snail off again. This went on for 4-5 times before the snail finally gave up. It's times like this that remind me just how fun a fish tank can really be! □