Getting Started with Shell Dwellers in New Zealand

Shell Dwelling cichlids are an absolute favourite of mine personally. They are beautiful and their behaviour is probably the most interesting thing you can watch in your tank. In this article, we will discuss everything that you will need to know to get started with them in the New Zealand context. 

In New Zealand, the only 2 species of Shell Dweller that are readily available are Neolamprologus Brevis and Lamprologus Ocellatus 'Gold.' We will refer the these as Brevis and Occies respectively in this article. 


These fish are African Cichlids, originating from Lake Tanganyika. Lake Tanganyika borders the nations of Burundi, Tanzania, Zambia and The Democratic Republic of the Congo. Lake Tanganyika is well known for having a high Ph and high hardness/mineral content. 

Neolamprologus Brevis and Julidochromis Dickfeldi

Tank Requirements

When it comes to Shell Dwellers, the footprint of the tank is far more important than water volume. They will spend their time around the mouths of their shells, and will only really go up in the water column to feed for the most part. Shell Dwellers do not need as much space as you would expect given their size. A pair of Brevis can live happily in a tank as small as 20Ls. Given that they spend most of their lives living in and around their shells, they don't need too much space. That being said, I would suggest a tank of 60cm x 30cms for a colony. This size will give you plenty of room so that you are not instantly overrun once they start pumping out babies.

I would suggest a larger tank for the Occies. These guys are far more aggressive than the Brevis. A tank of around 75cm x 30cm will be good to spread out the aggression. 

For both Occies and Brevis, I recommend some form of buffering capacity in the tank. The best option in my opinion is to use some form of coral rock or aragonite. This will buffer the water and keep the Ph stable and high. 


The Shell Dwellers are very easy to feed. They will readily accept a wide variety of prepared, frozen and live foods. Variety in their diets is most important. Personally, I feed mine a combination of both community and vege flakes, live baby brine shrimp, microworms and frozen bloodworms. 


There is one thing that is very obvious for decoration with shell dwellers.... SHELLS!!!! I recommend having at least 2 or 3 shells per individual fish in your tank. This will give them good choices for what they prefer, and ensure adequate supply to prevent fighting. As already discussed, Aragonite, or marine coral sand is the perfect substrate for Shell Dwellers. They will appreciate the buffering, as well as enjoy digging through it. Occies are far more active diggers than the Brevis. This is something that must be considered when planting their tanks. The other thing to consider is the hard water and high Ph that can affect plant growth. Some great options are Anubias and Java Ferns attached to decorations like rocks and driftwood. This will keep them safe, especially from the digging of the occies. Anubias and Java Ferns are also resilient to the hard water of African Cichlid tanks. Another great option, particularly for Brevis would be Vallisneria. Val is particularly resilient to the hard water, and will grow like crazy! It is a plant that propagates fast, and can always be sold easily which is always a bonus! In terms of hardscape, it is always useful when it comes to more aggressive fish to have breaks in the lines of sight. Using rocks and driftwood in the tank allows separate territories to be established. But it is important to leave a good amount of free floorspace for them to arrange their shells however they like. 

Tank Stocking

For brevis, they will be fine kept in pairs. Their pair binds are generally very strong and they will occupy shells together. For the Occies on the other hand, I would keep them with a ratio of at least 1 male to 2 females. The Occies pair bonds aren't as strong as the Brevis. The males will go around and mate with multiple females. This means that extra females per male will help keep the peace between males. 

I would recommend NOT housing multiple species of Shell Dwelling cichlid together as they will compete for shells. 

Their are plenty of other species that will make great tank mates for both Occies and Brevis. My personal favourite would be Julidochromis sp. There is a few different species of Juli available in New Zealand, but the most gorgeous is hands down Julidochromis Dickfeldi. Their vibrant blues pair fantastically with the yellows and golds of the shellies. For the most part, both brevis and Occies will get on well with other fish from Lake Tanganyika. they can even be kept with fish such as Frontosa, however this is a bit more tricky to ensure they get food and wont be eaten. I have listed below other good options. Please note, these fish may require larger minimum size tanks.

  • Neolamprologus Leleupi
  • Neolamprologus Brichardi
  • Synodontis Petricola
  • Lamprologus Compressiceps
  • Altolamprologus Calvus
  • Cyphotilapia Frontosa
  • Bristlenose

I would not recommend keeping Brevis or Occies with African cichlids from lake Malawi. The Malawi Cichlids are likely to both outcompete the relatively passive Shell Dwellers for food, and are likely to get eaten by the larger, more aggressive Malawi cichlids. Community type fish are also not a great choice to go with the Shell Dwellers, particularly the Occies. The community fish will likely be beaten up by the Shell dwellers.


Both Brevis and Occies are very easy to breed. Essentially, all you will need is males and female, and a source of food for the fry. It is sometimes a bit hard to know if the fish have spawned, as this will take place inside the shells. We feed live baby brine shrimp and microworms as a staple. This ensures that there is adequate food for fry should they show up. 


Shell Dwellers are awesome fish that are a must for any fish enthusiast. Their behaviours are unmatched in the freshwater world. I could spend hours just sitting in front of their tanks just watching the way they interact with each other and their environment. They are very easy to care for which is also a bonus! 

If you have any questions regarding these guys, or indeed anything aquarium related, please do not hesitate to reach out. 

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