Ad Konings, 2012
Cichlid Room Companion

Aquarist's Guide to Neolamprologus brevis

By , 1997. image

Classification: Captive maintenance, Lake Tanganyika.

" A guide for successfully keep and breed this wonderful shell dweller dwarf cichlid from the sandy areas of Lake Tanganyika "

Neolamprologus brevis Neolamprologus brevis pair, female in the lower part, from Karilani, Tanzania. Photo by Ad Konings.

As a cichlidiot, I find myself in the fortunate position of working on Saturdays in the largest cichlid store in Holland. As such, I am also able to visit importers in Germany, a country whose aquarists are very much concerned with cichlids.

Once, when my employer (also a cichlid freak) and I were visiting an importer near Dortmund, Germany, we came across a tank filled with some rather small cichlid fishes, looking much like the young of a Lake Tanganyika cichlid. The fish were not at all unattractive in appearance, even though they were not kept in optimal conditions a problem whenever one handles large quantities of fish. These particular fish had a beautiful purplish-blue hue with a light blue edge to the anal and dorsal fins and, as the most striking feature, a large black spot on the opercule. Fascinated by these little creatures, we were determined to have them.

We first inquired about the name because, although they looked familiar to me, we didn't know it. We were told they were Neolamprologus ocellatus. Well, that did ring a bell. The importer informed us that at 4.5 cm for males, and 3.0 cm for females, they were adults! The young that we saw were the first spawn of wild parents. We were so enthusiastic that the man could have asked any price of us and so that was about what he did. In the end, we were able to afford eight of them, four of each sex, with the males being almost twice as big as the females.

As the fish were empty snail-shell dwellers, the original shells from Lake Tanganyika were delivered with them. These shells are from Neothauma, and are three to four centimeters in diameter. (According to Brichard, 1978. Neothauma snails are the favorite diet of the beautiful and very common Synodontis multipunctatus. Furthermore, due to the high calcium concentration and high pH of the water, the shells do not dissolve slowly after the death of the snail as they would in acid waters, but become embedded in calcite. These shells then roll about in the lake until they fall into depressions, where they pile up and are put to use by some of the tiny species of fish, Randy Crout). On driving home with our treasures, we each decided to take tour of them. One of the first things I did after putting the fish in a 76 liter tank was to look for any information about them in the literature I had at hand.

There was virtually nothing. Only in Pierre Brichard's book of the fishes of Lake Tanganyika did I find a short description and a photograph, which I had vaguely remembered when was in Germany. However, I could not discover any information about their behavior, eating habits or other requirements. Obviously, if I wanted to find something out about these cichlids I would have to watch them closely, and so I did. Now, after observing these cichlids for six months, I can say that they have a behavior so extraordinarily unique that I can only attempt to write it down.

They are certainly not fussy eaters, although they tend to dislike flake foods. The very large upward-turned mouth indicates that we are dealing with a carnivore that will prey on anything that can be swallowed. I feed them copious amounts of live mosquito larvae, of which they can devour ten in five minutes, live and frozen brine shrimp (Mysis), live and frozen Daphnia and chopped chicken meat. Considering the amount of food with which they can cope, they remind one more of a fish ten times their size. They eat with such greed that they bite my fingers when I disperse the food in the tank. They also bite my fingers when I clean the tank and venture too close to their territory; Imagine a fish 4.5 cm (1.8") attacking a hand a hundred times larger than itself!

I soon discovered that they are not only aggressive towards intruding hands but also towards their own kind. While in the importer's tank they looked peaceful enough, so I decided to place the four accompanying snail shells close together in their tank. However, as soon as the two males noticed each other they opened their mouths and one male fixed his mouth over the upper jaw and head of the other, while the other grasped the lower jaw of his opponent. They then began to use each other alternatively as a whip, slamming each other into the sand. Those first five minutes spent watching my new acquisitions made my dream of breeding these fish seem unlikely in the extreme.

Neolamprologus brevis pair Neolamprologus brevis pair, Cameron Bay, Zambia. Photo by Ad Konings.

Immediately after viewing the above-described combat, I separated the shells as far as possible from each other so that each fish could have its own shell and territory. After a week it appeared that one female was always chased away by the others, so I decided to remove her. Perhaps it would have been better to remove a male, but at that time I was uncertain if the sole difference between the sexes was size. Further, my doubts as to the differences between the sexes was enforced by the strange behavior of the females (to be described later).

I was not even certain of the name of my shell dwellers. The photograph shown in Fishes of Lake Tanganyika (p. 213) by Pierre Brichard depicts N. ocellatus as a fish with vertical stripes toward the caudal end of the body, while my fish have never shown stripes. In addition. the mouths of my fish are not as steep as that of the depicted fish. Nonetheless, when I counted the scales and spines of the anal and dorsal fins, the only species that fitted my counts was N. ocellatus. Therefore, until just recently I had believed my fish to be N. ocellatus, but then we obtained the "real" N. ocellatus. These newly acquired fish more closely resembled the photographs in Brichard's book and in BBs 68 and 73.

In addition. when I counted the spines in this new fish, I came to the same values as for the fish which are the subject of the article. But then what was the name of my fish?. As for the features from five other species from which I had to choose, only one had a considerably larger number of gill rakers (the protrusions that sift the food particles out of the water running through the gills.) Therefore, I had to check the number of gill rakers. If one considers the size of these fish you can understand my amazement when I was able to count a high number of gill rakers after gently opening the opercle.

The true N. ocellatus has but five to eight gill rakers, L. signatus has but four to five gill rakers, whereas N. brevis has 18-21. Since I was able to detect and count at least 15 gill rakers in my fish, I can only conclude that the identity of them is N. brevis.

Another remarkable feature of N. brevis is their color when they are frightened: The total color is bronze with a black cap on the head (between the eyes and extending to the tip of the upper jaw) and above the anal fin on the dorsal side of the body is a black blotch. The ventral side above the anal fin remains purplish-blue.

Neolamprologus brevis Neolamprologus brevis, Cape Tembwe, Congo. Photo by Ad Konings.

The day after I placed my N. brevis in their tank, I noticed the shells were totally covered with sand with the exception of the aperture. Wondering how these small fish could perform this burying act, I removed some shells and placed them hack on top of the sand and then waited. What I saw was a pure revelation of instinct: They were so eager to conceal their shells that they immediately started to throw sand on them. not by mouthfuls, but in a very peculiar way. They would open their mouth almost 180 degrees (!) and plant their lower jaw in the sand, facing away from the shell. They then tried to swim through the sand! By doing this, the tail was swayed vigorously causing a fountain of sand which settled on the shell. Any sand that fell in the opening was removed by mouth. In about thirty minutes the shells were hidden again and the N. brevis had regained their underground nest.

I also wondered if they always had to look for a suitably situated shell, i.e., one in such a position that it could be entered easily. Therefore, I again took out a shell and put it hack with the opening facing the sand. After a few minutes. The N. brevis grasped the edge of the opening with its mouth and pushed the shell over! The position of the opening is always corrected in such a way that the fish can easily slide into them horizontally.

I have previously mentioned that I wasn't certain which of the fish were males and which were females because of the strange behavior of the (later recognized) females. This behavior consisted of a few remarkable features. One was that all N. brevis, whether male or female, have their own shell and corresponding territory. In fact, the female defends her property with greater zeal than does the male. and once she has a shell as her territory. she will not easily switch over to another shell as will the males. The female's shell also becomes the place where the eggs are eventually incubated. In order to accomplish this latter mentioned fact, the female has to promote the spawning and lead the male to her shell, which led me to believe that the smaller fish was the male trying to get a female to his spawning site. However, after a week or two I discovered to my utmost surprise a few young N. brevis in the shell of the small fish that can now be recognized as a female.

As with all shell dweller , the female provided all of the care for her offspring, while the male did nothing, and I didn't even know which of the two males fertilized the eggs. What I did know was that those two males were devouring my hardly-dared-dreamed of young N. brevis. So, I removed the shell that included the hidden young and placed it in a small plastic container that I hung in the tank in order to keep it at the right temperature. Unfortunately. the young died after a water change.

Neolamprologus brevis Neolamprologus brevis, Kigoma Bay, Tanzania. Photo by Ad Konings.

On the same day the first spawn died, I saw the actual spawning of the adults, which is a remarkable sight. First, the female swam up to the male. The male, because of his aggressive nature. wanted to chase the female, but just as he started to do so, she made an appeasement gesture by quivering in a bent position with her vulnerable belly pointed to the obtrusive male. This gesture inhibited the male's aggression.

After quivering for a few seconds, the female swam toward her shell, immediately followed by the male. Upon arriving at her shell, the female began to quiver again, and after a short time she swam, still quivering, into the shell where she presumably deposited one or more eggs which were not visible. When she came out of the shell, still quivering, the male entered, quivered for a short moment and then backed out.

The first time I observed the spawning, the aforementioned behavior was repeated several times with both males! Therefore, the eggs were fertilized by two males. As far as I know, this is a unique behavioral occurrence. (Polyandrous spawning is apparently quite common in arena-spawning maternal mouthbrooding cichlids. This is the first report of such behavior in a substratum-spawning cichlid. PVL)

About two weeks later, because of my busy occupation I can't say exactly, I noticed about 25 young swimming around the shell. I left them with their parents. In the meantime. I removed one male from the tank and replaced it with the female, which had been removed earlier. At first, she was again chased away by the two others. Nonetheless, she finally established herself at the opposite corner of the tank, while the other two acted as a "normal" pair. guarding their offspring (far more actively by the female) and staying together.

Two weeks after the introduction of the new female, I discovered fry in her shell also. Now I had two different spawns of two females with only one male. However, in this case the male remained with his first choice and left the new female to care for her fry by herself. (This is also unusual. Quite a few Cichlasoma species are facultatively polygamous, but in such cases the male remains with his second consort, leaving his first mate to fend for herself. PVL)

The females spawned alternately for two spawns each and then the female ceased spawning while the other continued. The situation was that the shell of the male was in between those of the two females. (The shells were placed at a distance of 15 to 20 centimeters [six to eight inches] from each other.) The two females would sometimes want to fight and every time I watched them, the male would intervene and chase the most aggressive of the two females away (the most aggressive was not always the same female).

I now have two separate tanks with a pair in each, with both pairs producing fry about every three to four weeks. The distance between the shells remains the same, without any fighting occurring among the pairs. I might also add that I have never seen any damage to the fish after even the most severe fight.

The conditions under which these cichlids are kept are: temperature of 27° C. (80° , Ph of 8 and a total hardness of 10° DH.

If everything goes well, this cichlid and other shell-dwelling cichlids from Lake Tanganyika, will become very popular. Moreover, they are easy to keep and breed

References (1):


Konings, Ad. (Jan 28, 1997). "Aquarist's Guide to Neolamprologus brevis". Cichlid Room Companion. Retrieved on Sep 23, 2023, from: