What the heck is a "shell dweller"? I asked myself when I first ran across a reference
to this group of little cichlids. “Very odd” were the two words that came to mind
after reading a little more on their behavior and niche in the littoral environment of
Lake Tanganyika. Normally being a person who is drawn to odd things, my quest
was underway to locate a group of shell dwelling cichlids.
“Which species are you looking for?” asked the clerk of a shop on Chicago’s
northwest side that specializes in rift lake species. After being flat out denied a
group of shellers at a couple of recent auctions, I told her it would be nice if I could
walk out with a few Lamprologus stappersii that I admired from a photo. She
told me all she had in stock was a single Neolamprologus multifasciatus, and a
group of four fish from Tanganyika listed as Lamprologus “Pearly Ocellatus”. After
close inspection I was fairly certain these were the fish I was after, but with an
odd trade name attached. Regardless of the current confusion surrounding the
Lamprologus group, I was determined to make a decent attempt at breeding a
non-mouthbrooding species for a change.
Arriving at home with a smile on my face and a bag of new cichlids, I proceeded
to acclimate these fish by placing them in their new digs. The day before I added
a few extra sea shells which I had picked up on a recent trip to the Florida
Keys. My initial thought was to pray that I would actually see these fish after
providing so many shells to hide in. Apparently, praying to the cichlid gods does
pay off every so often.
Lamprologus stappersii are attractive. Just not in a ‘knock your socks off’ way
like a male Ngara peacock in breeding coloration, or viewing a near-pancake
size turquoise blue Discus for the first time. They are a bit more subdued but
worthy of further study. The four individuals I obtained all had similar markings
and coloration. They can be described as silver-black or silver-brown depending
on the light and the color of the substrate. Their sides are somewhat speckled,
with numerous spots on the scales and fins that have a pearly appearance. At
this point, it probably wouldn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out how the trade
name ‘pearly ocellatus’ sort of stuck. The only visible difference I could readily
observe was that two were clearly larger at around 1” SL, while the other two
hovered at just over the 1” mark. Apparently, the maximum size for males is
2”, while females max out around 1.5” as adults. And from what I had read, mine
were just about spawning size.
The tank itself was certainly not difficult to start up. My idea was to create a natural
environment for them to reproduce. I decorated a ten-gallon aquarium with a 1”
deep layer of silver sand, Florida coral rock (Oolite), and one dozen seashells, which I
prefer over the escargot-type. After hearing a friend comment on how well her shell
dwellers did with Java Moss, I added a big chunk to test fate with live plants. The
filtration was a Marineland Penguin 125 filter and a cultured Tetra Billi sponge filter.
I had the Ebo-Jaeger heater pegged at 80 degrees Fahrenheit and the timer on the
florescent light set to run at twelve-hour intervals. So far, so good.
From the get-go the behavior of L. stappersii was absolutely fascinating.
Constantly posturing and angling their bodies— often so very abrupt and fierce
that the less aggressive individual made no haste in retreating to one of several
scattered shells. The amount of digging and excavating that went on in the sand
substrate was incredible, even on a cichlid scale. Jets of sand sprayed all over.
They had no trouble quickly burying a shell or piling up sand in the corner. In my
experience with this species, a gravel substrate is simply not adequate if you wish
to observe behaviors that most closely mimic the wild. The larger two, which I
assumed to be male, defended shells on opposite sides of the aquarium that was
separated by the Java Moss in the center. This group of four seemed to have no
trouble co-existing with so many shells to call home.
Like most other Lamprologines, feeding is quite easy. Preying on freshwater shrimp
and invertebrates in the wild, my group of four devoured frozen blood worms and
brine shrimp on a regular basis along with OSI cichlid flake.
One of the humorous sights was seeing a 1.5 inch cichlid swallow a 3-inch long
bloodworm. A few months after starting to feed them the meaty foods I noticed
their behavior become downright obnoxious. Not only the dominant male, but
also the other two smaller stappersii drove one of the males into the upper corners
of the tank. Pugnacious is an understatement for this species! Like in previous cichlid
tanks, I rearranged the rocks & shells a bit and turned the lights off so new territories
may become established. This had little effect however, and shortly afterwards I lost
the male who was being harassed. At this point things calmed down and I noticed all
of the fish spending more time in and in front of specific shells.
Maintenance proved to also be undemanding for this particular group. I performed
25–30% water changes every 7–10 days, which seemed to keep nitrates low in
combination with the Java Moss. Siphoning out the loose detritus is especially
important with a sand substrate since otherwise the bottom can quickly become
clogged and foul the water. I also periodically stirred the sand to loosen any dead
spots that may become anaerobic and cause trouble down the road. Their constant
digging helped in this regard.
Six months into keeping L. stappersii, I wondered if I would be blessed with fry in
the near future. A friend who had bred tiny multifasciatus assured me to be on the
lookout for ‘black dots on the sand’ and ‘sticks with eyes’. At that point I would
have settled for anything which resembled offspring of these guys. A few weeks
later, I noticed one of the smaller stappersii spending more and more blocking
the entrance to its favorite shell.
I noticed what appeared to be a tiny creature moving across the sand. Whatever it
was, it quickly darted into the shell with the fish at the entrance. A few days later,
I finally spotted tiny fry in the shell being guarded by the female. These were the
smallest free-swimming fry I had ever seen. I began to feed Cyclop-Eeze and BBS to
the fry, which they consumed immediately. It took two months for the fry to reach
1/4” size. At this point they resembled the parents and spent more time away from
the safety of mom’s shell foraging for food in other areas of the tank, especially in
the Java Moss and sponge filter. I likely missed earlier spawns, with few outward
signs of spawning activity by the parents. The fact that this species secretly lays
eggs deep inside shells made it especially tough to spot. These fry really blend
in well with their surroundings.
Future stappersii broods became more prolific. Both females guarded large batches
of fry on several occasions. Typical spawns yielded 25 fry of which 15 survived
away from the parents. I removed juveniles to a grow-out tank when they reached
1/4” to 3/8”. Later on when one of the adult females died, an interesting change
took place in the behavior of the male. The remaining female began to care less and
less for her broods. The larger male’s role reversed. He started caring for the tiny fry,
guarding them in his shell like the female. If any suddenly escaped he would quickly
scoop wayward fry with his mouth and spit them back into the safety of his shell! I
also observed the adult female snack on her own fry that were resting on the sand
substrate. This ultimately led to her demise after spats with the male.
Drama, jealousy, aggression, role reversal — you have it all rolled up into a compact
little cichlid, Lamprologus stappersii from Lake Tanganyika. I highly recommend this
species if you want to breed something slightly different.