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The Ultimate Shell Dweller Tank
by Bob & Laura Matthews

Once again this winter, Laura and I have decided to try another experiment with one of our tanks. We have both been fascinated and captivated by the shell dwelling cichlids of Lake Tanganykia.

Well, with the planted tank producing foliage by the pound and the pair of Giraffe Nose catfish growing up nicely in the 200 with the Peacock collection, Laura and I needed a new direction. We had once talked with Peter Lewis about a 55-gallon tank that he had set up for Lamprologus Multifasciatus. Laura and I have often discussed what a fun tank that would be to watch with all the families and the hustle and bustle they seem to throw into their existence.

Well, we have decided that we are going to set up the ultimate Shell Dweller tank. We decided to clear out our 125-gallon tank and convert it into a Tanganyika paradise. We have often talked of trying a shell dweller tank and since we tend to do things to extremes we figured using a 125-gallon tank for fish that are generally less than 2 in length and rarely swim more than 4-5 above their shells would be fitting.

At the end of February we were going to have our living room painted and this presented the prefect opportunity to take down the 125 and get it ready. However prior to this we had wanted to discover a way to make the tank more than just one large tank - flat and full of shells. We wanted to put in several shelves to add a dimension to the tank. How to do this was a question to us.

We thought of trying to contact the Shedd Aquarium to see how they made their tank displays, but didnt. We asked several friends at our local club who all had great ideas if we were doing this in a fish room, but not as a show tank in our living room. Well as fate would have it, we found our answer at The Container Store.

They have thousands of different types of storage boxes. After spending several hours walking the store we selected several shoe storage boxes that we thought would work.

Next, we knew we would need shells, and we mean lots of shells. We had about twenty or so from previous tanks, but knew this would fall far short of filling a 125-gallon aquarium. We did two things to find them. First we went to our Local Fish Shop (LFS) and asked them. Second, we went to the Internet.

Our LFS did some checking and were able to find hermit crab shells of assorted sizes for less than a $1.00 each. The Internet search was also successful, and we located numerous sites that could supply hermit crab shells for about $1.00 each.

(There is a lesson here folks! Give your local retailer a chance and help support them. They can usually help and are competitive. LFS are usually quite small compared to Petsmart and Pet Co but they need our business to continue to be there, so give your local retailer a chance!)

So I went ahead and placed an order of shells with the LFS, gave our Argentia to some friends, drained the tank and prepared for the living room to be painted. After painting the room, I had the painters help me move the tank back into place so I could get to work.

I started by cleaning the tank bottom and the plastic shoeboxes with rubbing alcohol so the aquarium silicon would set. I got two 10-oz tubes of aquarium silicon (also from the LFS) and proceeded to glue the lips of the boxes with a thick bead of silicon. I let it set for five minutes and then very carefully placed it onto the tank bottom, within my pre marked positions. I firmly pushed down to set the silicon and then placed rocks on top to keep the pressure on. I let this set for 72-hour hours before removing the weights.

Now we are not about to have plastic boxes in our show tank. So back to the LFS, this time to rummage through all of their rock bins looking for small pieces of slate. They have been there for years and they had lots of small, un-sellable slate chips. We bought 20 pounds of small chips for $10.00.

Arriving home I laid them out on the table, placed silicon on each chip and started sticking them to the outside of the plastic boxes. It took me 5 hours and one whole 10-oz tube to glue them all on. These were also allowed to set for 72-hours.

Next we placed #1 (fine) red flint gravel on the tops of all the shelves and on the tank bottom. Now the moment of truth: did we have a good seal and would our boxes hold? We held our breath as the tank was filled, but every thing held and there were no leaks!

Half the water came form our established 200-gallon tank. The rest came from the tap with chlorine remover. The filters for the 125 had been moved to the 200 during the painting to keep them running, and we now moved them back into place. We even put in the twenty or so shells that I had.

The first fish to go in were sixteen 2-3 Cyprichromis leptosoma Blue Flash, which were purchased from a friend. These were added to the tank to fill the open water column above the shells, just like in Lake Tanganyika. Within hours the two males were courting up a storm, given that they had just been moved from a 10-gallon tank to the 125-gallon.

Another trip to the LFS to pick up more shells. We brought home a box filled with 175 assorted sized and colored shells. My niece and I cleaned all the shells and then spent two hours sinking all the shells in the tank.

Wow, does it look cool! There is not a single inch of ground open on the entire tank. All the shelves and the entire bottom are completely covered in an amazing array of sizes and colors.

Well the tank was now ready for the main occupants of the tank - the shell dwellers. These were all purchased at our clubs swap meet the next week. Heres what we selected:

  • 6 Altolamprologus compressiceps Orange
  • 8 Neolamprologus mealegrise
  • 8 Neolamprologus occellatus Gold
  • 10 Neolamprologus caudopunctatus Red Fin
  • 8 Neolamprologus signatus
  • 4 Altoamprologus calvus Black

Needless to say we think that all the fish are in heaven. Every fish has visited every shell at least twice! After a couple of weeks we started to see groups gathering and males guarding territory. They are on all levels and in all the alcoves, just like we were hoping. □
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