Altolamprologus sp. Compressiceps Shell

One of the smaller Tanganyican cichlids is Altolamprologus sp. Compressiceps Shell. A nice small 5,5 cm fish that can be a bit demanding!

Altolamprologus sp. Compressiceps Shell

Lake Tanganyika is the oldest basin of the Great African Rift Valley. Its age has been estimated at more than 9 million years. It is the second deepest reservoir of freshwater in the world. It is located on the territory of Burundi, Tanzania, Zambia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The length of the coastline is about 1,900 km, 41% of which is covered by rock, 21% is rock-sandy, 29% sandy and 9% sand-boggy.

Isolation of Lake Tanganyika, has become the impetus to the creation of many endemic species of fish. As a result of the evolution taking place in these specific conditions, there have come into being a number of organisms which could not be seen anywhere else in the world. One of them is the evolution directed at reducing the size of the body, with an aim at acquiring new habitats, and thus the existence of two almost identical “variants” of one species which differ significantly in size. This phenomenon can be observed, inter alia, in case of Telmatochromis temporalis, Telmatochromis vittatus, Neolamprologus mondabu, Lamprologus callipterus as well as Altolamprologus compressiceps. Typically, the bigger ones live on rocky coast, while the smaller ones reside empty snail shells, mainly those of Neothauma tanganicense which cover the sandy area of the lake in number of millions.

Altolamprologus sp. Compressiceps Shell - Cape Kachese - vrouw met jongen
Altolamprologus sp. Compressiceps Shell – Cape Kachese – vrouw met jongen.

Is “shell” a different species?

You must have noticed mysterious letters “sp.” in the name of our hero (short for English word “species”). It implies that this taxon has not been scientifically described yet. We cannot even be sure that both compressiceps are two different species.

What are the differences then? It was mentioned above that individuals differ in size. Another interesting thing is that the fry is about three times smaller. What is more, it can be noted that disparities in the amount of dorsal fins. “Shells” have this fin much lower (in relation to the amount of body). This feature enables them to enter deeply into the shell, which in turn protects them from the attacks of predators whose body shape allows them to penetrate of the shells, for example Mastacembelidae family and small cobras (mainlyBoulengerina annulata). Another noticeable difference is strongly pale colors, which is visible at “shell” form, as in relation to Altolamprologus compressiceps. This in turn allows them to mask themselves better in the environment.

The emergence of new species, to which Altolamprologus sp. “Compressiceps Shell” probably belongs to, is an example of sympatric speciation – the creation of new species which are not separated geographically. This is proved by the fact of the appearance of both “compressiceps” in the same parts of the lake. In this case we are dealing with organic insulation as the populations which occupy the same area, live in other habitats. This is due to the existence of intra-competition. In order to protect themselves against harmful competition, the fish have developed mechanisms allowing them to reduce its level or even avoid it completely. One of the ways has become the separation of ecological niche (multidimensional space, potentially available for a given organism) of spatial diversity. Altolamprologus compressiceps remained in rocky habitat, while Altolamprologus sp. “Compressiceps Shell” took over a new area – sandy coast, which has not been populated by genus altolamprologus so far. As the ecological isolation continued, the reproductive isolation might have taken place as well (I did not conducted any attempts of cross-fertilization of the above species, but I do not think that it would be possible). It is not known whether the process of speciation of “shells” has already ended. This question will be answered by the detailed genetic testing.


The natural environment of “shell” is open, sandy areas of a lake, at 10 to 40 meters of depth. The fish swim there alone in the search for food which consists of mainly small crustaceans and fish fry. They can hide in empty snail shells in jeopardy, however, the fish do not attach to them permanently, with the exception of the spawning period. The above information applies to adults only as young altolamprologus grow in coastal area of the lake. This zone provides the proper amount of food and seems to be free from predators. Fry rise in rocky areas (gray colour of body).

Altolamprologus sp. “Compressiceps Shell” was originally fished in Zambia and southern parts of Tanzania. A new habitat of the fish has been recently discovered in the Democratic Republic of Congo and in Burundi, suggesting that can be found along the entire coastline of the lake (as well as Altolamprologus compressiceps). The different geographical varieties differ in colouration. What you can usually find in trading are those trapped in Zambia, mainly in Cameron Bay (the bay extends from the Chipimbi village to Sumbu village, on the west shore of the lake). Varieties from the north part of the lake have not appeared in Poland yet. There is also a very attractive purple variant from Sumbu Bay, which can be viewed on photographs only as its trapping was completely banned after the national park had been established in this area.

Altolamprologus sp. Compressiceps Shell - Cape Kachese jong
Altolamprologus sp. Compressiceps Shell – Cape Kachese jong van 10 millimeter lang.

Colouration and body shape

The “Shells”, as well as other fish of the genus Altolamprologus, can be characterised by a high, laterally compressed body. There are usually eight horizontal dark stripes on the trunk. When individuals become sexually mature, the end of the tail, dorsal and pectoral fins change their colours to yellow. The females grow up to 4 cm whereas the males grow up to 5.5 cm.

Hulls of Altolamprologus located on the sides of the body are very durable. They form a kind of a crust on which the fish may take a very strong blow, without any harm. Adapting to be used when hunting on the other fish fry, and when they fight for domination.

Sexual dimorphism

There is no visible differences in body building. A male may be bigger. A female has puffy, rounded belly before spawning. The sex of fish can be probably recognised by observing the shape of genital pore. The problem, however, is how to convince the fish to go out from the shells?

Altolamprologus sp. Compressiceps Shell - Cape Kachese jong in schelp.
Altolamprologus sp. Compressiceps Shell – Cape Kachese jong in schelp.


Altolamprologus sp. “Compressiceps Shell” appear to be calm, even phlegmatic, but they are not the type which would let other species to beat them. Other species of a similar size feel respect for them.

In an aquarium the adult “shells” spend most of the time hanging over the shell. They observe the environment and hide in case of emergency. They go out from the shell further than a few centimeters only when they feel completely safe. Therefore, any type behaviour such as establishing hierarchy or mating are very difficult to be observed.

The fish has not only taken over the style of fighting from the larger representatives of genus Altolamprologus (fish becoming darker, puffing out the jaw, bristling up fins, turning sideways to the attacker). They also added new element – hitting with a tail. The most frequent clashes take place between representatives of the same sex, as it usually happens, in order to win a favour of the opposite sex. The fights for a shell are rather rare.

Closing to the aquarium resident by “shells” we feel sharp look on us. When we observe them, they are doing the same with us.

Their shyness which I have emphasised many times before, may constitute a problem in studying the behaviour of this species. I watch them during late hours, in a dark room, lit with lighting in the aquarium and at a certain distance which allows me to be completely invisible.

An aquarium for Altolamprologus sp. “Compressiceps Shell”

These fish are shellies and this fact should be kept in mind when choosing the tank companies. There should be fine sand at the bottom and shells are necessary. The fish often change the place of residence. As a result, it is necessary to get a few shells per one fish, for example Helix pomatia shells and/or Neothauma tanganyicense, living in Tanganyika. Younger individuals prefer other places to hide such as tips of stones or jungle plants.

The aquarium should be located in a quiet place. The fish are very skittish and even a slight movement in a close proximity to the tank may scare them. When it happens they disappear in shells, waiting a few minutes, before going out.

The minimum capacity of a tank for a couple is about 50 liters. When keeping more individuals, the aquarium should be adequately bigger. For the colony of 8-10 individuals the adequate tank size is about 126 liters (bottom 80 x 40 cm, height is not that important). Of course, the principle which applies here is that the bigger the tank, the better.

Water for the “shells” should be previously prepared, as well as for the other inhabitants of Lake Tanganyika, with  pH in the range 7,8-9 and the overall hardness of more than 15 German degrees. If you need to change the water parameters in the tank which is already occupied by Altolamprologus sp. “Compressiceps Shell”, all the adjustments should be made very slowly (changing the pH up to 0.5 per day, maximum hardness of 2 German degrees daily). A good solution to this is to put coral gravel or broken snail shells in one of the chambers of filter. The water flowing through the substrate rinses out calcium compounds, which helps maintain the pH and hardness at the appropriate levels. This process is so slow that it cannot influence the fish. Overdose must be also avoided. In order to complement the contents of trace elements every few weeks, you can add a small amount of sea salt, bearing in mind, however,  that solution should be oxygenated at least 24 hours before adding to the aquarium (!).

Filtration should be efficient without causing a serious traffic of water. The fish is very sensitive to high concentrations of nitrogen. Regular substitution of approximately 30% of water per week is required.

The “Shells” can be bred with other species with similar food preferences and similar size. These conditions are met by smaller fish from the tribe Lamprologini eg Lamprologus meleagris, Neolamprologus brevis, Neolamprologus multifasciatus. Midwater part of aquarium may be filled with smaller fish from a tribe of Cyprichromini ex. Paracyprichromis brieni and Paracyprichromis nigripinnis.

Voorbeeldaquarium voor Altolamprologus sp. Compressiceps Shell
Voorbeeldaquarium voor Altolamprologus sp. Compressiceps Shell

Reproduction and growth

Reproduction, as well as in case of other altolamprologus is very easy. A ready for spawning female can be identified by bulgy, darker belly. It selects the shell targeting predominantly circulation of water in an aquarium. It spawns up to 50 eggs. A male fertilizes it in a characteristic way. He hangs up at the entrance to the shell, fertilizes and directs it to the interior through movements of fins. The female is then responsible for looking after eggs and larvae. We cannot observe a similar bahaviour of Altolamprologus compressiceps,where a male patrols the area around the nest, keeping close but also defending a female against intruders.

During following 20 days the female rarely leaves the shell. She spends the whole day moving pectoral fins and tail. She runs oxidized water to a spawn and later on the larvaes.

After leaving the shell, a fry is left on its own. Parents usually do not eat them (although there are exceptions), but they also do not show any interest. Unfortunately we cannot be sure that other fish in the same tank will do the same.

The process of growing up of Altolamprologus sp. “Compressiceps Shell” can be divided into three stages. The first covers the initial two or three months of life. The fish swim poorly and mainly lie on the sand. During this time, they are colored in yellow-brown. The next phase is a period lasting roughly up to 12 months of age. The colour changes to gray. The shape of the body resembles more and more the one of an adult. During this period, the fish swim freely, creating a “mini community.” Even if they swim next to the shell, they do not want to use them. They can hunt in a group, attacking an opponent even several times larger than them. They continue to grow until the third stage, when they radically alter their behavior. They forget about the benefits of living in a group. The shells suddenly become the safest place in the world as they become skittish, The nature of this period is linked with the return to the sandy areas (formerly growing in the rocky habitat).

“Shells”, if maintained in a good condition, can reproduce approximately every 30 days. You should bear in mind the appropriate method of feeding, as the females, despite spending most of the time in shells (while looking after eggs and larvae) could eat enough food. The food should wait on them when they decide to leave their babies.

Raising the fry

If you want to keep small altolamprologus you will have to meet fulfill several conditions. The shell with a fry should be taken to an aquarium filled with water taken from a home tank. There must not be any other fish except from a female. When the female is no longer interested in caring for the fry, she should be taken out (in order to make sure that all of youngsters swims out, you can wash the shell, pouring out the water from it and refilling it several times). It is acceptable to keep several generations in the same tank, but we must remember that the difference in age among the young “shells” should not exceed two months, otherwise the smaller individuals may be killed.

Young altolamprologus are very sensitive not only to bad water parameters, but also to their violent fluctuations (including temperature spikes). It is required to carry out small water changes, preferably at around 10% and twice a week.

The youngsters, which are few-days old, measure about 3 mm. Thus the food consumed by them must be adapted to the size of their mouth. They like alive Artemia larvae, which may be the basic ingredients of the diet in the early days of their lives. As an addition, you can add Cyclops, powdered food for the young fish and dry fragmented food for the adult fish.

Despite securing the best conditions for the offsprings, some of them die during the first four months. In relation to the above, surviving of 60-70% fish can be considered as a good result.

Altolamprologus compressiceps Altolamprologus sp. “compressiceps shell”
Size male up to 15 cm, a female up to 8 cm male up to 5,5 cm, a male up to  4 cm
Nature rather shy fish, can be aggressive during the spawning shy fish, avoiding any confrontation with representatives of other species,
fighting only when provoked
Adult environment rocky area sandy area
Colouration vivid, bright, yellow end of dorsal fin, tail and pectoral fins pale, yellow end of dorsal fin, tail and pectoral fins
Food crustaceans, other fish fry crustaceans, other fish fry
Reproductive strategy couple or harem couple or harem
Breeding place rock caves, large shells are used only in aquariums shells
Care for the offspring a male and a female a female
Growth rate about 24 months to achieve sexual maturity about 18 months to achieve sexual maturity
The environment of juveniles bars, rocky terrain bars, rocky terrain
Adoption of adult colouring after approximately 12 months,
with the size of 4-5 cm
after approximately 18 months,
with the size of 3-3.5 cm


Typical diet for Altolamprologus should consists of mainly meat. In aquariums the adult individuals seem to eat less because of their shyness. Having noticed the approaching keeper, they dive deep in the shells. Hence, they must be fed with food, which will be suitable for consumption even a few minutes after serving. All of these conditions are met by the live food (Chaoborus, Artemia, Chironomidae). You can also dish out frozen crustacean and flakes. In this case, it should be monitored whether uneaten food is left on the bottom as it would worsen water quality. You could also provide sanitary service (Ancistrus sp., Melanoides tuberculata, other fish).

The young individuals with a body length of 10-12 mm can be fed with a similar diet as adult fish. The difference is that alive food should be rinsed with hot water of temperature around 40-50 C. This operation is aimed of paralysing the nervous system. Live crustacean could damage the digestive system of the young fish, leading even to their death. The rapid transition to the “adult” food, significantly accelerates the growth of juveniles.

From the author

There is a variant Altolamprologus compressiceps, males of which grow to about 8 cm and females up to about 4-5 centimeters. The fish are covered with vivid and contrastive colours. It is usually sold by importers under the name Altolamprologus sp “Sumbu.”. Those fish behaviour is closer to the one of Altolamrologus compressiceps rather than to the described here “shell”.


1. Gashagaza M., Nakaya K. & Sato T., 2005. Taxonomy of Small-sized Cichlid Fishes in the Shell-bed Area of Lake Tanganyika. Jpn, J. Ichthyol. 42(3/4): 291-302
2. Genevell E., 2001. Shell beds piccole grandi soluzioni. Hydra 3: 61-66
3. Koblmüller S., Duftner N., Sefc K., Aibara M., Stipacek M, Blanc M., Egger B., Sturmbauer C., 2007. Reticulate phylogeny of gastropod-shell-breeding cichlids from Lake Tanganyika – the result of repeated introgressive hybridization. BMC Evolutionary Biology. 7
4. Konings A., 2002. Pielęgnice – moja pasja. Cichlid Press – TIGRA System Polska, Piaseczno
5. Konings A., 2005. Przewodnik po świecie pielęgnic z Tanganiki. Fohrman Aquaristik AB – TIGRA System Polska, Piaseczno
6. Krzanowska H., Łomnicki A., Rafiński J., Szarski H., Szymura J., 2002. Zarys mechanizmów ewolucji. Wydawnictwo naukowe PWN, Warszawa
7. Mirek P., 2007. Rodzaj Altolamprologus Poll 1986. Nasze Akwarium. 84: 11-14
8. Schelly R., Salzburger W., Koblmüller S., Duftner N. & Sturmbauer C., 2005. Phylogenetic relationships of the lamprologine cichlid genus Lepidiolamprologus (Teleostei: Perciformes) based on mitochondrial and nuclear sequences, suggesting introgressive hybridization. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution. 38. 426-438

I wish to thank Michelle, of African Cichlid Aquaculture Limited, for information about the natural environment as well as the sites of trapping Altolamprologus sp. “Compressiceps Shell.”



Przemyslaw Mirek
First publication: Tanganyika Magazyn 1 / 2007

Copyright images

Magdalena Kwolek-Mirek- (no longer available)

Additional information


Sub Family






Social Behaviour

Breeding behaviour









Length minimum in cm


Length maximum in cm


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