Small sized and gentle natured, a pair of Brevis Shelldwellers can be kept in a tank that is as small as five gallons!

The Brevis Shelldweller Neolamprologus brevis is a dwarf cichlid from Lake Tanganyika, Africa. Its a very small fish with males growing just short of 2 1/2 inches (6 cm) in length. The females are even smaller, only reaching about 1 1/2 inches (4 cm). There are several different geographic variants, but they are all pretty much light brown in color with a florescent blue lines under the eyes. True to its name, this little cichlid is a shell dweller that hides and spawns inside a shell. Other common names it is known by include Brevis Shellie and Lamprologus Brevis, and some of the varieties include the Standard Brevis and the Sunspot Brevis.

Shell dwelling cichlids, or Shellies, are some of the most unique fish in the cichlidae family. They are quite particular about how their home is buried as well as how it is positioned. Some like their home to be completely submerged in the substrate and be able to enter the shell horizontally. The Brevis Shellies are found in areas where they are not an over abundance of shells. But unique among the other shell dwelling cichlids of Lake Tanganyika, they have adapted to this in quite a cordial manner. Often times both the male and the female will simply share the same shell.

The shell burying activity of the Brevis Shelldweller, as described by Staeck and Linke (1982), employs three different methods. They will grip the edge of the shell with their mandibles and swim against it, pushing it into position. Then they will remove sand from underneath it to shift it. Lastly they will lie on the bottom strongly beating with their tail, blowing the sand away and allowing the shell to sink. unlike other shell dwellers this fish may not be as much of a digger. However the amount of digging and burying is dependent on the individual fish.

In the aquarium they require a very small territory, only claiming about 4 to 8 inches of space. A bonded pair can be housed in a five gallon aquarium making this fish almost an office desk fish. A ten gallon aquarium is possible for two pairs if they have a plenty of shells and places to hide. For a fascinating display have two or three males with a small harem of females in a 20 gallon long aquarium with lots of shells. The males will tussle harmlessly to see who can get the most shells, and then of course the most females.

These cichlids are very peaceful and cannot handle robust tank mates. They are community cichlids that can be kept with other Tanganyika cichlids that are of similar size. They must be kept with other peaceful cichlids or other friendly species for their own benefit. They are easy to breed as well, giving their owner the cichlid personality along with the family raising skills of a monogamous cichlid all in a small package. Because this fish doesn’t always do as much digging as other Shellies, they are very plant friendly.

These fish are a good choice for the beginning cichlid keeper. They are easy to moderate to care for as long as regular water changes are done to keep the water quality optimal. Provide a sandy or very fine gravel substrate and include some rocks. They also need at least two to three shells per pair to choose from for their home. Water changes, not overfeeding or overcrowding, observation, and feeding your fish the proper foods will keep them in optimum health.

For Information on keeping freshwater fish, see:
Freshwater Aquarium Guide: Aquarium Setup and Care

  • Kingdom: Animalia
  • Phylum: Chordata
  • Class: Actinopterygii
  • Order: Perciformes
  • Family: Cichlidae
  • Genus: Neolamprologus
  • Species: brevis
Brevis Shelldweller – Quick Aquarium Care
  • Aquarist Experience Level: Beginner
  • Size of fish – inches: 2.4 inches (5.99 cm)
  • Minimum Tank Size: 5 gal (19 L)
  • Temperament: Semi-aggressive
  • Aquarium Hardiness: Moderately hardy
  • Temperature: 75.0 to 80.0° F (23.9 to 26.7&deg C)
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Habitat: Distribution / Background

The Brevis Shelldweller Neolamprologus brevis was described by Boulenger in 1899. These fish are endemic to Lake Tanganyika, Africa. This species is listed on the IUCN Red List as Lease Concern (LC). Although it is endemic to Lake Malawi it is widespread. The extent of its range is unclear but it has no recognized threats at present. Other common names it is known by include Brevis Shellie and Lamprologus Brevis. Some of the geographic variants are known as the Standard Brevis and the Sunspot Brevis.

The Neolamprologus genus is the largest genus of cichlids in Lake Tanganyika, containing 50 or so species. The fish in this genus are all closely related but they are split between “shelldwellers” and “rockdwellers”, yet all are substrate spawners. This genus is also the largest group in the tribe Lamprologini. The Lamprologini tribe contains seven genera and nearly 100 species of African Cichlids, most of which are found in Lake Tanganyika, though a few species are found in the the Congo River Basin and one species in the the Malagarasi River in Tanzania.

The Lamprologini cichlids are highly variable and are found in all kinds of habitats. They are found both at the surface and in very deep waters, but all species are substrate spawners. They have a body that cam be somewhat elongated to very elongated. Their colors tend to be brown, yellow, blue, black or a combination or all four. Black is usually a striping, either vertical or horizontal. Like other genus in the tribe, the Neolamprologus will readily mate with females of other Lamprologini.

They inhabit silty areas of the rocky littoral zone at depths of 19 to 180 feet (6 – 55 m). They are found in areas where the bottom is muddy and sandy and there are large numbers of snails of the genus Neothauma. They use empty snail shells for their homes. Some of the areas where they dwell have a smaller shell density, so depending on their personality a pair may or may not share a shell. They feed on plankton for microorganisms.

  • Scientific Name: Neolamprologus brevis
  • Social Grouping: Pairs – They occur in pairs or singly.
  • IUCN Red List: LC – Least Concern


The Brevis Shelldweller is a small cichlid with an elongated body. It has a large mouth for its size and it is upturned, indicating a carnivorous predator. Males will reach just short of 2 1/2 inches (6 cm) in length and females are even smaller, only growing to about 1 1/2 inches (4 cm). The Neolamprologus genus can live 8 – 10 years with proper care.

The body is primarily a light brown and the fins are the same color, but clearish. They have florescent blue lines under the eyes, though these can only be seen under good lighting. When they are stressed they turn a bronze color with a black cap on the head.

There are slight differences in the Brevis Shelldweller depending on the region where they are found. The Standard Brevis from Kigoma, Tanzania and the Sunspot Brevis are two of the most commonly seen in the pet industry. Below are descriptions of some varieties:

  • Standard Brevis
    This variety has has a brown base color with 9 tan vertical stripes.
  • Sunspot Brevis
    This variety has has a brownish mauve base with a gold spot behind each of the pectoral fins.
  • Other localities
    Other varieties may have a blue cast over their body with blue accents on their fins. Some locations produce very light versions of this fish.

All cichlids share a common feature that some saltwater fish such as wrasses and parrotfish have and that is a well-developed pharyngeal set of teeth that are in the throat, along with their regular teeth. Cichlids have spiny rays in the back parts of the anal, dorsal, pectoral, and pelvic fins to help discourage predators. The front part of these fins are soft and perfect for precise positions and effortless movements in the water as opposed to fast swimming.

Cichlids have one nostril on each side while other fish have 2 sets. To sense “smells” in the water, they suck water in and expel the water right back out after being “sampled” for a short or longer time, depending on how much the cichlid needs to “smell” the water. This feature is shared by saltwater damselfish and cichlids are thought to be closely related.

  • Size of fish – inches: 2.4 inches (5.99 cm) – The male grows to a length of almost 2.5″ (6 cm). Females are smaller, reaching 1.5″ (4 cm).
  • Lifespan: 8 years – The Neolamprologus genus can live 8 – 10 years with proper care.

Fish Keeping Difficulty

These fish are a great choice for the beginner. They are moderately easy to care for as long it has the proper sized aquarium, the right decor, and the right tank mates. They can be kept in pairs or groups and are fairly peaceful. They also make good inhabitants for the community cichlid tank. They will eat a wide variety of aquarium foods and are easy to breed. The aquarium does need regular water changes.

  • Aquarium Hardiness: Moderately hardy
  • Aquarist Experience Level: Beginner

Foods and Feeding

The Brevis Shelldweller is an omnivore that feeds on plankton in the wild. In the aquarium they can be fed frozen blood worms, brine shrimp, and small protein cichlid pellets. They need some vegetable matter, so include some spirulina based foods along with a pea or piece of spinach. Live daphnia and live brine shrimp can be offered as a treat.

Feed 2 to 5 small pinches of food a day in smaller amounts instead of a large quantity once a day. A one-day-a-week ‘fast’ can also be beneficial. All fish benefit from vitamins and supplements added to their foods.

  • Diet Type: Omnivore
  • Flake Food: Yes
  • Tablet / Pellet: Yes
  • Live foods (fishes, shrimps, worms): Some of Diet
  • Vegetable Food: Some of Diet
  • Meaty Food: Some of Diet
  • Feeding Frequency: Several feedings per day – Offer several small feedings a day rather than a single large feeding for better water quality over time.

Aquarium Care

Do normal water changes of about 10% to 15% biweekly or weekly, depending on stocking numbers. The Lake Tanganyika cichlids cannot handle large water changes very well unless the new water chemistry closely matches the water they are in. If a large water change is needed, changing 15% every couple of days should bring water back to normal. This inability to tolerate large water changes is due to Lake Tanganyika being very deep and the water tends to stay stable

  • Water Changes: Weekly – Water changes of 10-15% weekly are suggested, only do more if the water parameters are off. Be cautious of doing more frequent changes as these fish are very sensitive to new water.

Aquarium Setup

The  Brevis Shelldweller will swim mostly in the bottom areas of the aquarium. A minimum of 5 gallons is suggested for a pair, or a 10 gallon tank for 2 pairs. A 20 gallon long tank or more would be needed to keep 2 – 3 males and a small harem of females, or if mixing with other species. They need good water movement to provide lots of oxygenation along with very strong and efficient filtration. Lake Tanganyika is a very oxygen rich lake so bubblers need to be going day and night, even if there are plants. Regularly check nitrates and ph, nitrates should be no more than 25 ppm and a pH less than 7 is not tolerated. In addition keep an eye on total hardness and carbonate hardness. Avoid overfeeding and overstocking.

Lake Tanganyika is the second to largest lake in the world, thus contributing to a low fluctuation in temperature and pH. All Tanganyika cichlids need stable temperatures kept within acceptable limits and lots of oxygen to survive. Temperatures under 72° F and over 86° F for too long is not tolerated by many of these fish. When treating for ich, a few days at 86° F is acceptable. The lake is also consistently alkaline with a pH of around 9, and very hard at about 12 – 14° dGH. In the aquarium most Tanganyika cichlids are fairly adaptable as long as conditions are close to these ideal ranges. Most important is that their water chemistry doesn’t change much over time. The water needs to be well buffered and maintained with small, regular water changes.

Salt is sometimes used as a buffering agent to increase the water’s carbonate hardness. An alternative buffering approach is to use a chemical filtration method, where the water passes through layers of crushed coral or coral sand.  Interestingly, Tanganyikan cichlids also need iodine for the thyroid to function properly to regulate growth and development, and which can be achieved by adding iodized table salt to the water. Although rift lake cichlids need hard alkaline water they are not found in brackish waters. This cichlid has some salt tolerance so can be kept in slightly brackish water conditions. However it not suited to a full brackish water tank. It can tolerate a salinity that is about 10% of a normal saltwater tank, a specific gravity of less than 1.0002.

Provide a sandy substrate that is roughly about 2″ (5 cm) deep. Provide at least two to three shells per pair to choose from for their home. Shell should be placed on open sandy areas since some like to bury their shell. They also need to be large enough for both the male and female to fit in comfortably. Make sure the shells do not have too many spirals, since they can be injured in such a shell. Shells from Escargot Helix pornatia are ideal and either be collect or can easily be obtained frozen from a deli.

Include some rocks or other decor to simulate their natural environment. Several plants can also be included as they do not harm them. Some good selections to use include Swordplants, Water Fern, Anubias and Java Fern, depending on your tank size.

  • Minimum Tank Size: 5 gal (19 L) – A 5 gallon tank is the minimum suggested for a pair and 10 gallons for 2 pairs. If keeping 2 – 3 males and a small harem of females, or mixing with other species, a 20 gallon long tank or more is suggested.
  • Suitable for Nano Tank: Yes
  • Substrate Type: Sand – A sandy substrate that is 2″ deep is needed for these shell dwellers.
  • Lighting Needs: Moderate – normal lighting
  • Temperature: 75.0 to 80.0° F (23.9 to 26.7&deg C)
  • Breeding Temperature: 75.0° F – Breeding temperature ranges between 75 – 80.5° F (24 – 27 C).
  • Range ph: 8.6-9.5
  • Hardness Range: 10 – 13 dGH
  • Brackish: Sometimes – Salt is not found in their natural environment, but they do have a slight tolerance, keep levels below 10% – a specific gravity of less than 1.0002.
  • Water Movement: Moderate
  • Water Region: Bottom – These fish will swim in the bottom areas of the aquarium.

Social Behaviors

The Brevis Shellies are the most peaceful of all shell dwelling cichlids. They can be kept in singly or in pairs. If the tank is large enough with plenty of hiding places, two pairs can be kept. It is a peaceful community cichlid that can be kept with other Tanganyikan cichlids that are similar size. They are very peaceful and cannot handle robust species of Lamprologines or the larger Altolamprologus species. Nor will they fair well with aggressive Neolamprologus species like the Fairy CichlidN. brichardi, Daffodil CichlidN. pulcher, and Lemon CichlidN. leleupi.

You can house them with the Masked JulieJulidochromis transcriptus since they only reach 2.5″ (5-6 cm) and the Cylinder CichlidNeolamprologus cylindricus, which is very peaceful. They will also work fine with very small Altolamprologus species such as a Sumu dwarf that also likes shells. But even though this fish is very docile, it will eat any Brevis fry. So don’t house them together if you are looking to breed your Brevis Shelldweller.

  • Temperament: Semi-aggressive
  • Compatible with:
    • Same species – conspecifics: Yes
    • Peaceful fish (): Monitor – They do well with other peaceful cichlids.
    • Semi-Aggressive (): Safe
    • Aggressive (): Threat
    • Large Semi-Aggressive (): Threat
    • Large Aggressive, Predatory (): Threat
    • Monitor
    • Shrimps, Crabs, Snails: May be aggressive
    • Plants: Safe

Sex: Sexual differences

This species is hard to sex as a juvenile, but once they are sexually mature, the male is much larger than the female.

Breeding / Reproduction

The Brevis Shelldwellers are egg layers and they are easy to breed in captivity. They are sheltered substrate spawner that prefers spawning in shells. They are monogamous and pairs will guard a small territory of about 4 – 8″ and seldom over 10″. You can buy several juveniles and wait for a pair to form. Remove the others unless you have a large tank that can accommodate more than one pair.

Keep the tank in a calm area to encourage breeding. Some state that If they are stressed, they will not breed and the stress could kill the fry. Sometimes the male and female will share the same shell during spawning, but there are different personalities so this may not be the case with all pairs. In the wild the male has been known to physically remove snails that get too close to the eggs, continuing until the snail has had enough and gives up.

The breeding tank should have slightly to moderately alkaline, medium hard water with to a pH of around 7.5 – 8.5, about 15° dGH, and a temperature between 75 – 80.5° F (24 – 27 C).The female deposits about 30 – 100

When they are ready to spawn the female will approach the male, then bend and quiver in a position that exposes her belly to the male. This gesture will be followed by the female approaching her shell, quivering again before entering, then entering and depositing her eggs. The male follows the female to the shell, and then positions himself above the opening and in quivering gestures ejects his milt to fertilize the eggs inside the shell.

The female deposits only about 15 – 30 eggs which develop in about 24 hours. They young are free swimming after about 6 days. The couple may not guard the fry, but in some cases the female may provide some care for the fry for up to about two weeks, with the male doing some guard duty. The fry will hide in the shell or in crevices. After the fry are older and the parents are ready to spawn again, the previous sibling set will have to be removed or the parents will attack them to make room for their next brood. See the description of breeding monogamous cichlids in: Breeding Freshwater Fish: Cichlids.

  • Ease of Breeding: Easy

Fish Diseases

Brevis Shellies are susceptible to typical fish ailments, especially if water is stale and of poor quality and oxygenation. For freshwater an optional practice is to add 1 heaping teaspoon of salt per 11 gallons of water. This is considered to be a simple and natural remedy for wounds, minor fungal infections and film over the eyes of fish in transit. Using a marine salt (used for salt water fish) will add some trace elements

One common problem is Ich. It can be treated with the elevation of the tank temperature to 86° F (30° C) for 3 days. If that does not cure the Ich, then the fish needs to be treated with copper (remove any water conditioners). Several copper based fish medications are available for Ich. Copper use must be kept within the proper levels, so be sure to follow the manufacturers suggestions. A copper test also can be used to keep the proper levels. You can also combine increasing the temperature with an Ich medication treatment.

As with most fish they are susceptible to skin flukes and other parasitic infestations (protozoa, worms, etc.), fungal infections, and bacterial infections. It is recommended to read up on the common tank diseases. Knowing the signs and catching and treating them early makes a huge difference. For information about freshwater fish diseases and illnesses, see Aquarium Fish Diseases and Treatments.


The Brevis Shelldweller is usually available both online and sometimes in fish stores. They range from moderate to moderately expensive, depending on size. They can be special ordered if you are willing to wait.