Cichlid Room Companion
Breeding tanks

Neolamprologus calliurus (Boulenguer, 1906)

By , 2003. image

Classification: Captive maintenance, Lake Tanganyika.

Neolamprologus calliurus

Neolamprologus calliurus male in the home aquarium. Photo by Audrey Marquis.

What to do with an empty 10 gallons tank that previously housed a group of guppies... Something more interesting, more challenging, a fish with a special behavior, easy to breed, unique in their way... These are the questions that came to my mind 2 years ago, when I grew tired of breeding these fish that didn't presented a challenge anymore. I had already heard that cichlids were interesting fish, with good parental care and beautiful colors. But being a beginner in the hobby, I didn't knew much about the different species that could thrive in such a small volume and was relatively disappointed when I learned that I would need a much bigger tank for most of the species that interested me.

After almost two months of intensive research, I found a group of cichlids that could be bred in a 10 gallons tank and did not need acidic and soft water, which I have not. The shelldwellers of lake Tanganyika!

I decided to try one of these small and funny species of african cichlids and I set my mind on Neolamprologus brevis. I acquired a group of 6 juvenile fish from a local fish store which had a small selection of tanganyikan cichlids. My project was to let them grow and pair up, and to keep only a breeding pair.

Neololamprologus calliurus female

Neololamprologus calliurus female in the home aquarium. Photo by Audrey Marquis.

I installed them in the 10 gallons tank, already cycled. There were a total of 9 shells in the tank, mostly marine and apple snail shell, and 4 small PVC pipes were hidden under a rockwork in the center of the tank. The substrate was a locally produced sandblasting sand, which raised the pH, GH and KH to high levels due to its magnesium silicate composition. The pH was above 8.8-9.0, GH 440-500 ppm and KH 310-340 ppm. I used a 6700K fluorescent tube, which was on 14 hours per day, and the temperature was set to 27 C. I also wanted live plants in there, but found out later that only Anubias were able to survive to this extreme water chemistry and to the attacks of the fish.

The 6 fish took some weeks to establish the hierarchy. This was fascinating to watch, and every day brought new surprises. While looking at them, I learned to appreciate their unique look, even if they were not as colorful and flashy I thought cichlids were supposed to be... Soon it appeared to me that 2 of the fish which were bigger than the others were males, 2 very small ones females and the other 2 were not really determined. The males constantly displayed to each other, with erected fins and lots of false attacks, and the 2 females were harassed by the others at the point that I have had to suspend a shell in a top corner of the tank as a refugee. These fish were small but so agressive, it was a pain to the heart to look at these poor females.

After two months of these little wars and battles, I had a male who chose to mate with the two small females, sharing their shells alternatively. This male even took the duty to protect his females against the 3 other fish, and the suspended shell was no longer necessary. I moved the other 3 out of there, letting the entire tank to the trio.

Male N. brevis never develop a lyre tail, they have rounded tails

At this point, as I had read a lot more about Neolamprologus brevis and tanganyikan cichlids in general, I was wondering which geographical variety I possessed. I first thought I had the variety from "Katabe", my fish having a white line along the dorsal fin and the top of the tail. But as I observed them more and more I found out that there was something that did not match the description of the N. brevis in my fish: the tail, and the size. My male had a beautiful lyre tail¸ and he measured at least 8 centimeters long with 4 centimeters long females. Male N. brevis never develop a lyre tail, they have rounded tails, and they grow to 5 centimeters with 3.5 centimeters long females... The fish I bought at this fish store were not Neolamprologus brevis at all, but Neolamprologus calliurus!

N. calliurus is a fish that is seldom seen in fish stores, and most often the ones that are offered are mislabelled, being named N. brevis, N. sp. "Magara" or N. brevis "Magara". This misinformation should be corrected as it could led to hybridization with N. brevis.

While the 2 species do look alike, they do not have the same requirements and behavior. N. brevis is a pair spawner and most pairs share the same shell in the center of a small territory, while N. calliurus prefers to breed in a harem, with some distance between each female that do not tolerate each other very well. When thinking about setting a tank for N. calliurus, we should consider this factor and plan to separate the shells with some rockwork or plants as we would do with any agressive harem breeder (N. ocellatus, N. stappersii...).

N. calliurus prefers to breed in a harem

So being the proud owner of a seldom seen specie, I tried eagerly to trigger spawning, using a wide variety of food. The diet was based on 2 brands of pellets, and frozen Artemia, frozen mosquito larvas, live microworms and live white worms were fed to the fish each day alternately.

Combined with the varied diet, I decided to space maintenance, as they were really stressed each time I did it. 20% water change each 2 weeks succeeded to maintain nitrates under 10-20 ppm, which I considered satisfying. I also changed the Aquaclear® mini filter for an Aquaclear® 200 charged with media for biological filtration.

My trio spawned 3 months after their acquisition. I first noticed the male chasing after a tiny creature, and I realized it was a fry as he ate it. The fry were gathering in a corner of the tank, mostly due to the strong water current, and they tried to stick to the ground. The parents were chasing after them and ate them, which I had not expected at all.

Empty snail breeding shells

Three Neolamprologus calliurus fry at 2 months of age near an Apple Snail shells. Photo by Audrey Marquis.

The same day I saw the fry, I noticed what I thought was a breeding behavior, and it has been confirmed since then as I observed them do it again. One of the females was harassing the male, bitting his flanks and presenting her side to him when he turned around to chase her. She was really dark colored and kept her fins close to her body, and the male was flaring and shaking his body. He pushed her to enter her shell violently and followed after her. They stayed in there for approximately 5 seconds, then the male got out, followed shortly after by the female. They repeated this behavior four or five times, and then the male let her alone. She stayed inside the shell for some minutes, but then returned to her normal life, swimming near the shell, chasing the second female from the entrance.

Three weeks later, I found out a new group of small fry trying to hide in the same nude corner of the tank. As the parents were again trying to eat them, I siphoned them out of there. I caught 20 fry, and the following days each morning I found 8-10 new fry in this corner, for a total of 42 fry. I transferred them in a 5 gallons tank with the same water chemistry than in the parents tank, filtered with an Aquaclear;reg; filter, and I changed 40% of the water each day. The temperature was maintained at 27°C. They were easy to feed with microworms and frozen baby brine shrimp. They began to swim in the water column 2 weeks later, before that they were only hoping on the ground. After a month, I succeeded to feed them young white worms sliced in tiny pieces, sliced frozen Artemia and crushed pellets. Their interest for the microworms faded around the age of 2 months, then they continued on their diet of pellets, worms and Artemia.

At the age of 3 months, I moved them in a covered 10 gallons tank as they had begun to jump out of the 5 gallons tank. The substrate was the same sand, but this time I offered them some rocks to hide and take cover, and an Anubia. They were too agressive against each other with shells around so I did not place shells with them. The filtration was accomplished by an Aquaclear® 200, and I changed 20% of the water every 2 days. Growth being really slow even with large regular water changes and a top quality food, they reached what I consider to be "juvenile" size at the age of 8 months. At this point I keep them in an homemade 34"x12"x12" 21 gallons tank, making a rotation from the 5 gallons to the 10 then to the 21 as they grow older. The biggest of the group are obviously males, but it appeared that they develop the lyretail only at maturity. The smaller fish could be females as well as slow growing males, and these combined factors have the consequence that it is impossible to sex the juveniles.

I observed that the trio produced fry at the rythm of a brood every 2 to 3 weeks

As months passed, I observed that the trio produced fry at the rythm of a brood every 2 to 3 weeks. It was impossible to tell which female was caring for fry in her shell, as they did not modify their behavior at all except when they spawned. The biggest group of fry was 50, but I have never been able to catch each tiny fry so some of them grew out with the adults. I also let an entire brood of approximately 40 fry with the parents to see the results, and after 3 months there were only 4 of them still alive. Periodically, I transferred the biggest fry from the parents tank to the growing tank, as they began to chase after the newborn fry. I catched them with small apple snail shells, which they entered when I scared them, making it easy for me to do the transfer.

Neolamprologus calliurus would be best suited for a 15 or 20 gallons (24 x 12) tank, but thrived surprisingly well in this small aquarium. The females do not wander away from their shell, always staying in a range of 10 centimeters around the shell. The cannibalistic behavior could have been caused by many factors such as the small tank or removal of the fry, but slowly the adults learn to let the fry alone and the only threat to the newborn are the older brothers and sisters...

I suggest this interesting specie of shelldweller cichlid to any cichlid enthusiast. The finnage and coloration of the male is really splendid compared to Neolamprologus brevis and the breeding behavior a curiosity to add to any fishroom... It is the time for the Neolamprologus calliurus to stand up!

The 10 gallons tank
The 10 gallons breeding tank. Photo by Audrey Marquis.


Marquis, Audrey. (Jan 04, 2003). "Neolamprologus calliurus (Boulenguer, 1906)". Cichlid Room Companion. Retrieved on Dec 01, 2023, from: