Neolamprologus ocellatus: Occies or Shellies

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Fiesty bottom dwellers – most are less then two inches in total size and are the boss of their territory.

Scientific Name: Neolamprologus ocellatus (No longer in the genus Lamprologus after a reclassification).

Common Name: There aren’t too many. The most common seems to be Occies or Shellies (which is amongst about seven species).

pH Requirements: about 8.1 – 8.3

Lake of Origin: Lake Tanganyika

Family: Cichlidae

Maximum size: 2.5 inches for males and about 1.5 inches for females.

Temperament: Extremely aggressive!

General Hardness: Fairly hard water is an asset.

Colors: Blue/brown or gold/brown.

Swimming level: These fish are bottom-dwelling only and will only go up about two inches above their shells!

Neolamprologus ocellatus — wow! That is the only word that I can use to describe these guys. They may be small but they definitely pack a punch! For these dwarf shell dwellers to keep the larger predators of Tanganyika away, they have to be feisty! Most are less then two inches in total size, and they teach larger fish what not to do when they come too close to their shells. I have personally experienced how aggressive and territorial a female N. ocellatus can be when defending her eggs; unfortunately, that aggression can cause them to kill other fish that approach the shell too closely. For the best success with these little bundles of joy, here is some vital information that you need to know.

N. ocellatus require a few special needs that should be easily obtained. First and foremost would be shells — these cichlids require shells for protection, security and mating. The second requirement is the substrate. These cichlids absolutely need finer grained sand. This is because they are so small that larger grains of sand have been rumored to harm their gills and mouths. Once you have these two essential pieces then you are almost ready to keep these guys.

One question I received about N. ocellatus was, “Just how many shells do I need to put in with them?” Well, this is a very controversial question because many people have many different ideas on this. I have read that people recommend one shell per fish whereas other people recommend at least six shells per fish. Personally speaking, I have chosen to go with 4-5 shells per fish. This gives them more defined territories and allows them to have multiple homes for them to live and breed in.

The next question that I was asked was, “What size shells should I be using for these guys?” I personally went for larger shells that were 1.5 inches or larger; however, N. ocellatus have been known to live in small hermit crab shells. These guys can live within very cramped living areas and seem to be happy. I went with the larger shells because I have found that they have larger spawns with larger shells in comparison to smaller shells. This isn’t to say that they don’t have large spawns inside small shells — all I am saying is that I have found that the spawns were of less fish in my experience with them. Also, one should note that if you can get the shells of Neuthaumathat would be the best as they are the natural shell homes of these Tanganyikan cichlids.

N. ocellatus are harem breeders. One male will take up to five females for its breeding partners. The females start by selecting the best shell for their needs and clean it, inside and out. The next step is that the female will then cover the top of the shell with sand so that it looks like an opening only within the sand. The female, once content with her breeding shell, will then lay all her eggs into the deepest part of the shell. The male will then enter into the shell and fertilize all the eggs. Once he is finished fertilizing the eggs, he will vacate the breeding shell and leave the female’s territory very fast or risk getting beat up. The female will post her guard station right outside the shell and will almost never leave this spot. Anything that comes near her shell and her newest spawn will meet almost certain doom. As I mentioned earlier, I have had proof of this aggression as I have lost a fully grown, four-inch Julidiohromis ornatus to a one-inch N. ocellatus female that was protecting a shell with her eggs within it. Needless to say, I came home from work to find the dead J. ornatus right beside the N. ocellatus shell. It was quite a lesson to learn indeed!

After a three-day gestation period, fry will start to emerge from within the depths of the shell. These fry will be free-swimming within two days from what I have experienced. It seems that they just wobble around the bottom of the shell to get some movement and try to start swimming. It’s all practice for the newly hatched fry. The female will care for these fry for up to two weeks; after that time frame the fry must leave and find a new home or they can stay within the shell and risk getting eaten. I have noticed that in some instances that the female is very tolerant of her fry and will let them stay for an extra two weeks in her shell.

So how exactly do you tell the difference between a male and female N. Ocellatus? This is fairly simple to do in a mature fish. Females have a white edging along the top of their dorsal fin whereas the males do not. This is one of the easiest ways to tell. The other, not-so-common way to tell the difference is the size factor. Male N. ocellatus will get to be upwards of 2.5 inches in length where a female will get to be a maximum size of 1.5 inches.

I mentioned earlier that these fish have lots of personality and attitude, so let me explain. To watch these fish is interesting, to say the least. No matter how many shells you have to separate the territories, there will constantly be battles and territory shifts between all the fish. Females constantly go to other female’s territories and completely fill in the shell entrances of the opposing females. It doesn’t matter if the female is in the shell or not – the intruding female will do her best to cover the entrance of the shell as fast as possible without getting into a fight. The males will do the same as the females if you happen to have multiple males in a large enough tank. Now I have seen many African Cichlid tanks and I have seen many battles but I have never seem the ferocity of battles or frequency of battles as I have with my N. ocellatus tank.

The last question I usually get asked is, “Just how many fish can I keep in my small aquarium?” Well, as a general rule of thumb, a 10 gallon will house one male and one female. If you go up to a 15 gallon, you can house one male and two females. The best ratio I have seen is one male to four females. You can do the math but each one of these fish requires 5 gallons of volume per fish. The reason is for the aggressive nature that these guys exhibit towards one another. You can keep other fish in these areas such as Synodontis petricola but do have the proper areas and structures for the other fish to escape from the wrath of the N. ocellatus. All in all, if you have a small tank laying around, check these guys out — I don’t think that you will be disappointed!



Neolamprologus ocellatus: Occies or Shellies

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