Lamprologus ocellatus was my first shelldweller. Prior to them, I had been keeping some of the larger Lake Malawi and Tanganyikan fish and the 'charm' of the little shell dwellers from Lake Tanganyika had yet to make itself evident. These little frog-faced cichlids came to live with me by way of a 110 liters Hexagonal tank I purchased at our clubs local auction. Obviously I needed a smaller fish to live here and a friend in the club suggested the ocellatus.
I originally started out with seven juveniles from two sources. Three from a local breeder and 4 from a friend. Their tank was decorated with vallisneria, java fern, hygro, and lots of shells that I collected from the beach. In retrospect, far too many shells, but I will get into that a little later in the article. The substrate was about 4 cm. of fine off-white sand from the local fish store and the tank was filtered by a back filter and heated by a 100 watt heater.
The ocellatus grew surprisingly quickly on a diet of frozen bloodworms, frozen copepods, baby brine shrimp, and crushed Spirulina Flake. At about 20 mm. they are fairly sexable by means of determining dorsal coloration. The females have white lined dorsal and anal fins and the males are gold or orange. As it turned out, I had 5 males and 2 females! Not perfect numbers, but I wasn't that concerned with it and figured it they breed they breed, if not oh well, the tank looks pretty cool anyhow. In short, the two females had set up camp in the front of the tank where their homes would be furthest from neighboring shells and seemed to each have a male hovering around most of the time. One male obviously the most dominant of the two. The remaining 3 males were banished to the back of the tank.
Within a few weeks there were tiny fry hopping around in one of the shells when I fed. They are so small they look like tiny sticks. I fed them baby brine, frozen copepods, and crushed flake, shooting the brine into their shell with a turkey baster. This works very well providing you don't do it very hard and use tank water to dissolve it if it's frozen. The fry grew fast on this diet and in a week or so were lying about on the sand outside the shell. Easy pickings for the three evicted males. It also appeared that the neighboring paired male was attacking and eating the fry. Only one survived the first few broods this way, and this was because one of the paired males (whom I am now using as my harem leader) took the fry into his shell and protected it from attack until it was too big to fit into the mouths of the others.
A few months passed this way and I watched as brood after brood of fry disappeared. Since they were in my bedroom, I spent a fair amount of time watching them and two things occurred to me: (1) the shells were way too close in proximity to each other, and (2) the one male who seemed to slightly dominate over the entire group really wanted to have all the females to himself, as he would regularly try to chase off the other paired male and spawn with both females.
By this time about nine months had gone by since I first got the fish and it was time to do some serious breeding. I moved the 'responsible' male and his by now juvenile sized baby and the two females (one with her shell full of weeks old fry) to a 200 liters planted tank. There were still a number of shells, but only a few more than the number of fish affording them the choice of moving if they so desired. The shells were placed as far apart as possible in a standard 200 liters tank, leaving a good 20 – 30 cm. between the closest ones. I also put small territory dividers between each of the shells. For this I used small rocks with Java fern or anubius attached, or just the rock itself. I had a female on each end and the male somewhat in the center though he soon moved closer in toward the original female he had paired with leaving his juvenile progeny in his old shell to finally be on his own. This is the tank setup that I am still using with them with excellent success. The tank is filtered by a back filter with a small grate over the filter intake and a large sponge filter inside the tank hooked up by clear acrylic tube to a powerhead on the other side of the tank. This provides the necessary water flow so that when food it poured into the tank the flow will continually take it around to each of the shells feeding all the fry and eliminating the time-consuming turkey baster. Again, this tank has a fine off-white sand substrate that is about 5 cm. deep and is planted with vallisneria, java fern, and anubius. The tank lighting is provided by a Daylight bulb in addition to considerable daylight as the tank is positioned under a window. The constant temperature of 26°C is maintained by a 150 watt heater. In my experience, Lamprologus ocellatus don't seem overly particular about pH and water clarity. Not that I am at all suggesting they be ignored or mistreated, only that if you miss one weeks change you are not going to lose any of your fish. I maintain their pH at 8.0 by using a commercial Tanganyikan buffer at about 1/4 teaspoon per 15 liters bucket. Their water is treated for chlorine/chloramine with Tap Water Conditioner, and I do changes weekly at about 30%. Though ocellatus are very forgiving when it comes to water parameters, they do not do well with abrupt changes. Therefore it is important to get your water temperature very close (never colder) to their tank temperature and the pH should be within a few points. It is much better for your fish if you can work out a consistent schedule and proportion that brings you tank water and changes into equilibrium so that water changing is not a stressful time.
With the three adults as my breeding group, I get consistent and large broods of fry. Generally about 20-30 with most of them surviving if I pull out the maturing fry as they leave the shells to make their own lives. If you choose to leave the juvenile fry in the tank, you will have losses as even at a small size these fry are accomplished hunters and will hover and attack the young fry laying in the sand. And though the parents are very good at protecting the young broods, juvenile ocellatus are sneaky and I have caught them many times with a younger (large!) sibling in their mouth. Anything that will fit into their mouths seems to be fair game, though I have not had any trouble growing up two very close generations of fry that are different in size. I make it a habit to pull out all the fry once they have left the shell and put on a little size (6 mm). This can be done with the turkey baster (a very useful aquarium tool!) if you are quick and get them before they catch on. Otherwise, you have to either use a net (a pain in a planted tank) or wait until they move into a shell (this can take some time as the younger ones just want to lay around on the substrate). One thing to watch if you decide to go with the net method, the parents can be very touchy once disturbed. Moving their shells or just messing with other tank decor can lead them to rearranging fits, moving their shells and burying or even abandoning (sometimes both!) the fry. I have found them to be consistent spawners if left in relative peace, often having a new batch of fry appear while the older ones are still hanging around in the shell, but still small enough not to be a problem to the new fry.
Once the fry have been pulled from the parents tank, they move into one of my grow-out tanks, either a 60 or a 80 liters tank. Both filtered by backfilters and heated by 50-100 watt heaters. Their water parameters are the same as the parents with water changes on the same schedule. They are fed frozen bloodworms, frozen copepods, and crushed Spirulina Flake. The bloodworms are by far the favorite food of all my ocellatus, big and small. No matter how small the fry, they will eat the bloodworms, either by picking at the worm or by pulling it into their tiny mouths and working at it until the whole thing is gone. I have returned to the tank an hour later to find them still eating the same worm! At first this worried me, such small fish trying to eat a worm sometimes twice their length, but so far I have not had a problem, and they really put the size on them. This is also the conditioning food of choice for the parents as it puts weight on and the higher protein seems to contribute to the high fry yield. Be very careful to keep your bloodworms frozen and throw out any that are questionable or have been slightly thawed.
Besides being fun to breed, these little fish are interesting and fun to watch. They are very particular about their shells and will work tirelessly until they get them exactly as they want. The name 'ostracil' as these little cichlids are referred to, comes from the way they move sand, ocellating their bodies and tail causing the sand to fly back in a 'rooster-tail' like fashion. They will lunge at their shell open-mouthed and attempt to move it around, dig out some more sand, move the shell, and so on until it is correctly positioned, at which point them will again ocellate in the opposite direction and covering the shell with sand and filling in the pits until just the opening is apparent. In general, they prefer shells that they can just fit into, though I recently put in some decorative conch type shells and for whatever reason, the male and the more rambunctious female have chosen them over smaller ones.
Their shells are very important to them, and it is best not to touch them or move them if you can help it. If you must, be prepared for a full-on attack (though pinpointing the fingers and spreading them apart as you come toward the fish seems to send them into their shell temporarily - helpful if you have one you are trying to catch) and fits of reconstruction if they feel damage has been done or their safety compromised.
Easily one of my favorite cichlids, Lamprologus ocellatus is a must-have if you are interested in cichlid behavior. They fear nothing, and will let you know if you are among those not worthy of their proximity. I have one female who absolutely dislikes my husband, lunging and attacking every time he even shows himself near her end of the tank, whereas I can approach her (as long as my arm is safely outside the tank) without hostile display. Of course, he is the one who recently moved both her and the males' shells and I am the one who feeds!