Neolamprologus multifasciatus | A detailed guide to keep and raise these shell dweller - Para Lá da Kapa

sábado, 23 de maio de 2020

Neolamprologus multifasciatus | A detailed guide to keep and raise these shell dweller

Classification: Neolamprologus multifasciatus (Boulenger, 1906)
Nickname: multis
Distribution: Africa, endemic to Lake Tanganyka
Reproduction: easy
Sexual Dimorphism: hard when young
Behaviour: great with fishes of the upper part of the tank
Diet: everything

Water Conditions & Habitat

IIn their natural environment, multis live at the bottom of the longest lake in the world, Lake Tanganyika. They live on its coast, where they find soft sand and empty Neothauma shells for them to inhabit. That's right! Each multi will live in its shell, where it will relax, hide and breed (just like we have our own house).

The lake water usually has a pH of 9 and temperatures between 24 and 29ºC. In the aquarium, multis are very versatile; however, I advise the following parameters:
pH — 7,8 to 9,5 (8,5 is ideal)
GH — 10 to 20 dGH
kH — 4 to 10 dKH
Temperature — 24 to 26ºC

Despite the above parameters, multis are one of the most resistant fishes I've ever taken care of. It's possible to keep them in very different parameters from the ideals, though they won't be happy. At first, due to the impossibility of having alkaline water, I had my colony at pH 7.2. What was the result? They never ever procreated. As soon as the pH rose, the fry started to appear (I'll talk more about this soon). Other water parameters, such as temperature and hardness, are more adaptable and can be adjusted from colony to colony.

Finally, there's the most critical requirement for multis life: the shells! At Lake Tanganyika, the shells are from the Neothauma snail; fortunately, multis aren't that demanding.  The first colony I kept was with this snail's shells, but, in the following ones, I used the shells I had at my disposal, like from normal snails or even more elaborate ones (as you can see in my photos). When choosing shells, avoid the sharp (which can hurt the multis) and the small ones (which will be nothing more than decorative). If the shells are bigger, don't worry, as multis don't care (some of mine even prefer!). Another funny detail I came across: multis like coconuts and rocks with spaces to get in and out for an aquatic ride. You can add them to multis aquarium if you like (although coconuts and wood logs may slightly lower the pH, their effect is not significant in large aquariums or naturally alkaline water).

We only live in a shell, but we want and NEED many!

That's right! Your aquarium should at least have 2 shells per multi (better if you can get more) and the distribution of the shells must be organized. On the one hand, you can choose an area of the aquarium to place the shells from where you want the colony to settle. Separate the shells a few centimetres from each other (if you set all in the same spot, only a multi or a couple of multis will live there, despite only using one or two shells).  You can place clusters of 3 or 4 shells in some areas so that, if a couple wants to establish, they can do it. I have had couples living in the same shell, but, usually, they like to live in different but close shells (especially when the female has fry).

Neolamprologus multifasciatus fry
Two females protecting the territory from their shells and their fry.

It should be noted that you must place shells in other areas of the aquarium, to form new colonies (if the multiples feel it's necessary) or the new group will be homeless. Another thing to keep in mind is that, no matter how much you choose an aquarium area to have the colony, multis can choose a different area to live in, even if it involves fewer shells (in that case, you can move some shells from the place you have in mind).

Maximum Lenght of Multis & Aquarium Size

Multis are the smallest cichlids on record, so they are also one of the species that require less space to live. As they like to live in colonies, usually from 6 to 12 elements and with a dominant male (habitually the largest), you may consider an aquarium for several multis. At a certain point, smaller males end up reaching the size of the dominant male, when they tend to be expelled from the main colony, and a new one can start as long as there are shells in other areas of the aquarium.

Thus, the most significant dimension of the aquarium is not the water volume capacity, but the width and length (multis only use the underside of the tank, so its height isn't relevant). In my 200-litre aquarium, I have a colony comprised of five females, one male and twelve fry living in a 40 cm x 35 cm aquarium space. However, I recommend a larger aquarium, so that the water parameters are more stable and in case the colony splits (which irremediably happens with more males or the increase of the colony).

Sand, sand and more sand  We are great diggers!

You heard the multis: they love to dig. One of its most captivating characteristics is precisely the hobby of digging. Any healthy and self-respecting multi likes to grab the sand or small stones around its shell and accumulate them in a nearby spot. It is not clear why they do this, although I suspect it works as a second hiding place beside the shell. For example, all the multis moms in my aquarium have their kids in a big cavity of sand under their shells (only during the day. At night the fry collect into their mother's shell).

That said, the aquarium must have a substrate of soft sand or small stones that will not harm the multis during their daily digs. I recommend a substrate of at least 5 centimetres. In my aquarium, I have a layer of sand and small stones of 6-7 cm. However, I do warn about substrates of this thickness: they can allow bacteria that do not like oxygen to grow on the bottom and produce toxic compounds to fishes, such as hydrogen sulfide (H2S). It's a risk that can be controlled since H2S is only toxic if it accumulates in the sand and is released suddenly. As multis love to dig (and often do it to the bottom of the aquarium), the sand is regularly aerated, and H2S doesn't accumulate. If you want to have a substrate like mine and play it safe, you can also add snails like Melanoides tuberculata, which bury themselves in the sand during the day, taking oxygen into it. To conclude with a curiosity, aquariums with a good layer of sand have the disadvantage of being heavier and having a lower water layer (not relevant for multis). Nonetheless, they bring the benefit of carrying bacteria that help to regulate the water parameters and avoid the accumulation of NH3, No2- and No3- (ammonia, nitrite and nitrate, respectively). Therefore, fewer water changes may be needed.

Diet — We may not be exquisite, but...

Multis always have something to say. When it comes to food, they devour everything from granulated or flocculated to life food, such as brine shrimp and daphnia. I feed mine with standard flakes and with the chips that Tropical specially designed for the cichlids in Tanganyika Lake. If you also use this Tropical chips, you will notice that they are too big for the multis to swallow and too compact for them to bite and break. So, the secret is to undo the chips (I do it by pressing them between two spoons) before giving them to the multis.

Something I noticed when I acquired my multis (the two times I did it): They hate to switch houses! When they move into a new aquarium, they may seem very shy, pale and not interested in eating. Don't worry if it happens to you in the first 4 or 5 days. They easily handle this brief starvation period (as long as they are healthy, of course) and, on the sly, I suspect they'll always find something to eat (in good-size, with plants and natural aquariums). It will be much worse if you give extra food to accumulate in the aquarium, so they can eat when you are not watching. That may worsen water quality and can compromise the health of all fish (moreover, multis do not usually look for food through the sand, despite living close to it).

Behaviour & Compatibility with other fishes

Being cichlids, we cannot expect anything more from multis than fish with attitude. They may be small, but they will defend their territory with great conviction and in groups. As I mentioned earlier, they are fish that inhabit the bottom and middle of the aquarium, so there should be no problems if you have fish that only use the top of the aquarium (as long as the aquarium is not ridiculous small in height, like 20 centimetres, and be careful with fragile and too showy fish, like male guppies).

As for compatibility with other cichlids, there are mixed opinions about whether or not multis should be mixed with their fellows of Lake Tanganyika. If your aquarium is large and spacious, with 200 or more litres, the answer is simple: you can have other small shells or rock dwellers, like Neolamprologus brichardi or the smaller and more peaceful species of Julidochromis. You can also try adding Cyprichromis; however, these fish are fast and may be able to devour multis offspring before they can react (the entire colony will protect their fry, but it takes a second to them to respond to intruders, before going into fast mode defence. That second may be enough to Cyprichromis).

In parallel, you are free to add snails and shrimps (the latter are likely to be eaten, but it might be worth a try). As for snails, they can be a great purchase to help maintain the aquarium. Personally, I keep Planorbis corneus and Melanoides tuberculata, and I guarantee they are peaceful, do not touch the fries of the multis and do not frighten them (although they can devour their eggs if they manage to get into the shell, the multis parents don't let them in). I can't say the same for bigger snails, such as golden apple snails (if you want to try and go well, tell me. I've never had them with multis, but I've been told they can intimidate them).

Sexual Dimorphism & Size

This part I will be updating as I measure my multis. Males are undoubtedly wider than females (between 4 and 5 centimetres versus 3 centimetres, respectively). Appart the size, the distinction between sexes is not easy, especially when they are young. If they are dark brown, they are probably females (unfortunately, few females are so evident). Males also tend to develop a slightly longer and less close-to-the-body anal fin, as well as more pointed and thinner pelvic fins (almost all of my multis are distinguished like that; however, there are exceptions). Some say that sex can also be recognised by the colour of the fins. That isn't the case of my colonies, which have multis with yellow, blue, grey, brown and orange fins (males and females).

I suggest that you purchase a small colony at least of 4 multis, to be likely to have a couple and to witness the incredible daily life of the multis community.

Neolamprologus multifasciatus couple
Image with one of my couples (female below and male above).

I am just a male, but I desire several brides!

So true! Multis can be kept in pairs, however, if you have several in an aquarium it is more likely that one male will dominate the rest and make a harem with most females. So true! Multis can be kept in pairs; however, it is more likely that one male will dominate the rest and make a harem with most females if you have several in an aquarium. Sometimes, perhaps in order not to be alone, the other males establish colonies in which there is also a dominant male, and the others live submissive in their shells, except at the time of eating (multis are less territorial during feeding, so that everyone can eat, even from different colonies). If you have several males, I recommend an aquarium at least 80 centimetres long.


There are fish that need special conditions or an incentive to breed, though that is not the case for multis. They will readily develop a curious group of fry, as long as the water conditions are reasonable, they're not being harassed by larger or very aggressive fish and have shells. As I mentioned earlier, multis are cichlids with personality and resilience, but they need an adaptation period. Sometimes, it can take weeks or a couple of months to start breeding.  In part, because the colonies may need a long time to establish or because there is already youth multis. They show a certain mentality about it, as I had noticed that they breed less when they have small multis in the colony.

If the tank in which you have/want to keep the multis is a community tank (with other fish species), there should be no problem. Multis are exceptional parents and sooner get angry with each other than to harm their fry. However, fast fish that like 'sweets' can take advantage of their young (so expect less fry in community tanks).

Another parameter that I already mentioned and that is crucial for multis being willing to breed is pH. If it is a neutral pH, multis may be fine, but they will hardly want to bring offspring in such unpleasant water for them.

dominant males Neolamprologus multifasciatus.
One of my dominant males Neolamprologus multifasciatus.

As for the mating behaviour, the female will try to attract the male's attention to its shell (which may be buried until only its entrance is seen). When the male is engaged, the female lays the eggs inside her shell (they are never visible) and then the male fertilizes them. Afterwards, the father has the accessory role of defending the territory and the fry from predators. As for the female, she will protect her shell and fry until they are independent.

Males can breed with several females simultaneously and have a favourite, which they will give special attention to.  Interestingly, the last offspring that my colony had seems to have been divided between three females, where the first had one fry, the second had two and the third had nine. They may have had all the fry at the same time, although it is unusual to have less than five or six.  Unlike many cichlids, multis usually only have between 6 and 12 babies per offspring. That's probably because of their small size, as they live confined in a shell and as they are so good parents that they manage to take most of their fry into adulthood.

My Neolamprologus multifasciatus female with her fry of 9.

As for food, the fry always has small foods to feed on in large aquariums. In parallel, I better crumble the Tropical food that I covered above and, as I have a good filter, the crumbs are scattered around the aquarium, and the little ones can enjoy it. It is important not to overdo the dose, or there may be a peak of nitrites/nitrates, algae, snails or other problems.

At some point, dominant males may decide to devour some of their fry if they believe the colony is too big for what they can protect, as 'A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush'.

How to increase the pH of the aquarium? Watch out for stains!

There are several ways to increase the pH of the aquarium for those who are not fortunate enough to have alkaline tap water, such as adding commercial chemicals (which I don't recommend. They are expensive and can have adverse outcomes) or the addition of limestone material ( such as sand, shells and rocks, which raise the pH very gradually). However, the most efficient, quick and safe way to reach a pH of 8.5 - 9 is probably to buy bottles of alkaline water at the supermarket. In this way, it is assured that the water is clean, has satisfying concentrations of calcium, magnesium and other valuable minerals, high pH and the absence of chlorine (an unwanted but necessary contaminant in tap water). I use a mixture of bottled alkaline water with shells and limestone sand. It is not expensive and is quite efficient.

Neolamprologus multifasciatus female with brown spots due to a lack of minerals.
I take the opportunity to warn about the use of activated carbon in the filters of the aquariums. Although it has several benefits, it lowers the pH and removes minerals from the water, some of which are essential for multis. Their deficiency can cause them to develop and brown spots (it may resemble small holes), as you can see in the image above. To correct the problem before the wounds get too big and potentiate an infection, change the water regularly with a mineral-rich one, remove the active carbon and give the multis a quality food (if you weren't already doing it). Be careful not to confuse the disease with a very similar one and also common in cichlids that leads to holes in the head, caused by the parasite Hexamita intestinalis. In this case, the treatment will be with specific drugs, which I only recommend to use if you are sure of the disease (medicines used for the treatment also affect the beneficial microbes of the aquarium, which may destabilize its perfect balance). Another cause for mineral deficits in water may be an infestation of snails (they deplete the minerals in their shells, especially calcium).

We are fry — small, sleepy and VERY curious!

When it comes to fry, you are more likely to find them when you least expect them. The mating of the multis can be discreet, mainly because the male continues to protect the shells in his colony as well as before mating, and most females remain so independent and hardworking. However, do not panic if, overnight, you stop seeing the little ones, even if there is already light in the room where you have the aquarium. The fry has just learned to swim and need more time to rest than their parents. So it is natural and even a good sign that you don't see the little ones for much of the morning and evening (even if you have the aquarium light on).

Why I write these Diaries? — Over the past few years, I have known, raised and bred several aquarium species (such as cichlids, tetras, viviparous, shrimp and snails). Like any aquarist, I adapt to each situation that arises, be it an algae infestation or a problem with filtration. To each end, I studied the causes of the problem and the practices I could use to prevent it from rehappening in the future. As there is no better way to learn than with experience, I will share here the odd and curious situations I have faced over the years.
I aim to pass on captivating, funny and enriching stories. Since English is not my mother tongue, overlook any mistakes I may write.

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