Home | Aquarium Equipment | Setting Up a Shell-dweller Tanganyikan Cichlid Aquarium

Setting Up a Shell-dweller Tanganyikan Cichlid Aquarium

SpeciosusI think that Cichlids can be an extremely fun fish to watch.  They interact with each other and other fish in interesting ways and they have their own set of habits that can be really entertaining from building shelters to courting and breeding. I live on a budget, fresh out of college, so to set up a cheap cichlid tank, I decided to do a single species that stays small so I can use a smaller tank and less expensive equipment. Cichlids usually need a larger tank to accomodate their size and territoriality. I really wanted to try African Cichlids of some type, even though most of the South American dwarves are more colorful. Most African Cichlids grow to at least 4-6 inches, but I did find one group of cichlids, the Shell-dwellers from Lake Tanganyika, that would be just the right fit for my set-up. Many of these cichlids stay under 2 inches even as adults, so the 15 gallon tank that I have will provide plenty of space for several. They use the empty shells of aquatic snails as sites for breeding and shelter, and this behavior alone is very interesting to watch. 

Shell-dwellers prefer to have a fine sand bed to hold their shells stable and so they can dig around the shells.  I used three 5 pound bags of Natural Tan Sand, a 5 pound bag of Black Sand and a 10 pound bag of Aragonite. I rinsed and mixed all the sand together in a five gallon bucket before adding it to the tank. Next, I added the water, which I buffered with Seachem Tanganyika Buffer to ensure the proper pH needed to keep the little guys happy. I attached an AquaClear 20 as my filtration, and also added an Aqueon Pro 100 watt heater. I let the tank run for the first 24 hours to make sure everything was working correctly and to let the temperature get to 78 degrees. 

CiliataThe decoration I chose for the tank is minimal. I like my tanks to look natural, so I added a few live plants to the tank: spiralis, ciliata and African Water Fern. I also collected some empty shells, 20 or 30 turbo snail shells and a few margarita shells for any juveniles that might eventually occupy the tank. I stayed away from rocks, wood and other heavier ornamentation so that my view of the cichlids won’t be hindered.  

On day two, I added some starter fish, 12 white cloud mountain minnows, to start the cycle in the tank. I also added half of a bottle of Nite Out II (Nite Out II contains live bacteria that help to seed the biological in your tank and speed up the cycle). When I added the fish. After the first week, I had 6 minnows left alive, so I added another bottle of Nite Out II. By the end of the second week I had 1 white cloud left, the rest had become casualties of new tank syndrome.  I tested my water at least 5 times during the first two weeks the tank was running. In that time the ammonia spiked and the nitrite spiked, too. I added three Sailfin mollies at the end of the second week to help finish the cycle. On the 16th day, the tank had no ammonia , but still showed a nitrite level of 1.0 ppm.  The sailfin mollies and the White Cloud minnow will remain in the tank to keep the bacteria going. I want to be sure that the cycle is finished before adding my shellies. Once the nitrite has dropped down to zero I’ll be able to add my permanent fish. Next time I’ll tell you about the fish I chose and why!




  1. avatar

    I hope that nobody reading along things you need to kill minnows to cycle a tank. Fishless cycling is easy, and less cruel.


  2. avatar

    Thanks for the comment, Warren. While using starter fish is still common practice in the hobby, there are several other methods also in practice that do not involve live fish. Sam chose to use starter fish and also dosed with live bacteria to start the cycle, unfortunately he did have some losses in this case.

  3. avatar

    Dear All

    Starter fish to the media seems cruel and using that method as a beginner in the hobby, really would not be advisable!
    BUT for the experienced hobbyist, this method is not bad at all….
    1. The bacteria colonies start growing with the wastes those starter fish produce!
    2. You wont use a discuss as a starter fish for the only reason…IT IS NOT ADAPTABLE TO EXTREME WATER CONDITIONS were as, say minnos, can cope with several water conditions without having stress symptoms!

    So, if one is concerned about losses…one should also see that the fish you buy are quarantined very well, for I often find that cruelty lies in various pert shops as well!!!!

    Best Fishes

  4. avatar

    Thanks Gert. And you are correct…danios, minnows and other hardy fish have been used to cycle aquariums for decades particularly because they are usually able to weather the harsh conditions of the cycle.

  5. avatar

    Or, instead of needlessly killing a bunch of poor fish, you could wait patiently and do a fishless cycle, and let the tank stabilize on its own, like its supposed to.

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