Unshelling a shell dweller

As anyone who has ever kept these little Tanganyikans knows, unshelling a shell dweller isn’t going to happen unless they want to leave their shell. Shellies can go into their homes and wedge themselves so well that even a predator can’t pull them out. There are several techniques to getting these little cichlids out and they all involve a similar principle. Shellies appear to dislike being elevated from the bottom of the tank. The article Unshelling Shell Dwellers explains a system to get multiple fish at one time. There are also YouTube videos that demonstrate how to get a shellie to leave its home by raising them off the ground.

While the two methods mentioned above work well, these techniques don’t always fit my needs. Sometimes I need to catch one particular shellie without disturbing the rest of the tank or having it leave its shell only to enter another. When I need catch one fish (or several, one at a time), I use a plastic water bottle. The first step is to cut it all the way around where I’ve draw the red line. You want to find the spot on the bottle where the upper part is wide enough so it won’t fall into the bottom of the bottle.

Unshelling a shell dweller

Once you’ve cut the upper portion off, simple reverse it into the lower part of the bottle. Put it into your tank and let it fill with water making sure there is no air trapped on the edges. With all the air out, it should stay at the bottom of the tank. Then simply pick up the shell with the fish you want and place it, shell opening down, into the upper part of the bottle. Make sure to align the mouth of the shell with the hole in the water bottle. I also place a small net on top of the water bottle. I once had a shellie exit the shell and instead of going straight down, it squeezed in between the shell and the water bottle to escape up and over the edge.

Unshelling a shell dweller

In a few minutes, the shell dweller will leave its shell and drop down into the water bottle. Congratulations, you’ve just unshelled and trapped it all in one shot. Repeat as needed. This technique also works great for catching fry that hide around rocks. Simply put some crushed flake into the water bottle trap, fill with tank water and lay it on its side. Place it close to where the fry hide and walk away for a while. The opening is too small for larger fish but the fry will eventually swim into the bottle and not be able to find their way out.

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