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4 Tank Mates for Shell Dweller Cichlids: Compatibility Guide

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By Lindsey Stanton

shell dweller cichlid in the tank

Also known as Shellies, Shell Dweller Cichlids are small, cute fish native to the bottom of Lake Tanganyika in Africa. Named for living and breeding in shells, these Cichlids colonize thousands of snail shells and create massive territories on the bottom of the lake.

For a small fish to survive in an inhospitable environment like Lake Tanganyika, it must develop aggressive behaviors to defend its territory and ward off intruders. Because of this, keepers must be careful in choosing appropriate tank mates. Check out the four best tank mates for shell dweller cichlids.


The 4 Tank Mates for Shell Dweller Cichlids

1. Clown Loaches (C. macracanthus)

Image Credit: Joan Carles Jaurez, Shutterstock
Size: 4.5 inches (12 cm)
Diet: Carnivore
Minimum tank size: 100 gallons (113 liters)
Care Level: Moderate
Temperament: Semi-aggressive

Clown loaches are semi-aggressive, bottom-feeding fish known for hiding. They have a beautiful black and tan color with four barbells near the mouth. Like the Cichlid, the Clown Loach enjoys hiding and will search for small rocks and caves. If you provide enough hiding places, it’s unlikely to become aggressive in defending its territory and will leave the Shell Dweller Cichlid to enjoy its shells.

2. Pleco (H. plecostomus) – Best for Small Tanks

pleco eating algae
Image Credit: Corneliu LEU, Shutterstock
Size: 24 inches (60 cm)
Diet: Herbivore
Minimum tank size: 20 gallons (75 liters)
Care Level: Easy
Temperament: Passive

The pleco is a popular aquarium fish for its algae eating. As a bottom feeder, the Pleco will spend most of its time dining on tank algae and keeping your tank clean. Because it focuses on eating and swims in small areas, the Pleco is unlikely to challenge the Cichlid over territory or food.

3. Red Tail Shark (H. plecostomus)

red tailed shark
Image Credit: LeonP, Shutterstock
Size: 4 inches (10 cm)
Diet: Carnivore
Minimum tank size: 75 gallons (283 liters)
Care Level: Moderate
Temperament: Semi-aggressive

The red tail shark is a beautiful and sleek fish with a semi-aggressive nature, making it a great choice for a cichlid tank. These fish are mostly gentle but establish strong territorial boundaries. Shell Dwelling Cichlids have similar temperaments but different territorial preferences, so both species can set up their own boundaries and avoid fighting. For harmony, provide vegetation and rocks for your shark to keep it comfortable.

4. African Red-Eyed Tetra (A. spilopterus)

african red-eyed tetra
Image Credit: Andrzej Zabawski, Shutterstock
Size: 4 inches (10 cm)
Diet: Carnivore
Minimum tank size: 50 gallons (189 liters)
Care Level: Moderate
Temperament: Peaceful

The African red-eyed tetra is a popular tankmate for many species, including the Shell Dweller Cichlid. Tetras can grow larger but are generally peaceful in spacious tanks. If you provide enough room to swim and spaces to hide and establish territory, the African Red-eyed Tetra will avoid confrontation with other fish. This fish isn’t picky about meals, so you can provide various food options throughout the tank to discourage food-guarding behaviors.

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What Makes a Good Tank Mate for Shell Dweller Cichlids?

The most suitable tank mates for Cichlids are bottom feeders, hiding fish, or other semi-aggressive fish. Caves, driftwood, and other hiding spots allow the tank mates to hide and establish territory lines to avoid conflict. High-water fish are a great choice as well since Cichlids tend to stay near the bottom. If possible, choose fish from the same geographic region and habitat or close to it.

Where Do Shell Dweller Cichlids Prefer to Live in the Aquarium?

Shell Dweller Cichlids are one of the smallest cichlids in the world and manage to survive in open-water environments by hiding in shells. In the wild, these fish will create expansive “shell cities” to inhabit.

In your tank, it’s best to provide a variety of shell sizes and types in different locations so your fish can choose the option they prefer most at any given time. If you’re not adding high-water tank mates, you can use a short, long tank that provides the maximum bottom space.

Water Parameters

Shell Dwellers are found throughout Lake Tanganyika along the coasts of the Republic of Congo, Burundi, Tanzania, and Zambia. This freshwater lake is massive and deep, with alkaline water and temperatures around 75°F.

Because of the conditions they experience in their native environment, Shell dweller Cichlids prefer hard, alkaline water with a pH of 7.8 to 9 and a hardness of 15 to 25. The temperature should be between 73ºF and 79°F.


Shell Dweller Cichlids are one of the smallest Cichlids in the world. The male can reach sizes of 1.5 to 2 inches, while the female reaches sizes of 0.75 to 1 inch. Because of their small size, Cichlids are ideal for small aquariums and only require around 10 gallons. If you plan on keeping a variety of fish, however, it’s best to get a larger tank.

Aggressive Behavior

Lake Tanganyika, the Cichlid’s wild habitat, is an unforgiving expanse of open water for small fish. To adapt to this environment, Cichlids are brave and aggressive. In the wild, they have been known to approach divers and get in their faces, even nipping, as a display of intimidation and aggression. In captivity, the Cichlid is just as aggressive and may nip its owner, though it’s unlikely to do much damage as a small fish.

With other fish, the Cichlid may nip fins or fight over territory, which is why it’s important to seek out tank mates that can live in harmony with the Cichlid or establish strong boundaries. Another option for reducing aggression is providing the Cichlid and its tank mates a lot of space and hiding spots.

Zebra Shell-dweller cichlid
Image Credit: Arunee Rodloy, Shutterstock

starfish-divider-ah Top 3 Benefits of Having Tank Mates for Shell Dweller Cichlids in Your Aquarium

The general rule for a communal tank is to allow 1 inch of fish per 1 gallon of water. Overcrowded tanks can lead to fish health issues and territorial conflicts. But what happens if you have too few fish? Having tank mates for your aquarium offers many benefits to your Cichlid, including:

1. Companionship

Many fish species are schooling, meaning they like to live and travel in groups. In captivity, fish should have at least one other tank mate for companionship and engagement. In fact, some fish suffer from depression and lethargy when they live alone.

2. Natural Habitat

When you choose your aquarium design and décor, you do your best to recreate a habitat that mimics your fish’s natural environment. In the wild, Cichlids would be around several other fish and invertebrates, including predators. While you don’t need to create a miniature Lake Tanganyika in your home, providing a few tank mates gives your fish the social structure of its wild counterparts.

3. Ecological Balance

Some of the best tank mates for Cichlids are bottom feeders and eat algae, helping to keep the tank clean and in ecological balance. Algae is important for stabilizing the bacteria in your aquarium and minimizing nitrogen, but too much algae can severely reduce the oxygen in the water.

Without oxygen, your fish will become sick and possibly die. Having bottom feeders not only benefits you by reducing your tank maintenance tasks but also benefits the Cichlid by keeping its home clean and oxygenated.

Fish to Avoid with Shell Dweller Cichlids

With their aggressive nature and territoriality, Shell Dweller Cichlids don’t have many options for tank mates. It’s impossible to list the numerous species that should be avoided, but generally, any small, docile fish can struggle with the Cichlid’s aggression and won’t have the size to fight back.

The only suitable tank mates for Cichlids are either large enough to hold their own or are equally aggressive and territorial. Having other aggressive fish can lead to fighting, however, so it’s important to monitor your aquarium dynamics carefully.

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Final Thoughts

Shell Dweller Cichlids are small but mighty fish. Known for their aggression and territorial behaviors, Cichlids can be challenging fish to keep in a communal tank. Though plenty of fish can be good tank mates for the Shell Dweller Cichlids, it’s important to do your research on each fish’s needs, provide enough space, and introduce new fish slowly to avoid conflict.

Featured Image Credit: nortfish, Shutterstock

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