Tigers in Snail Shells…Oh my!: Lamprologus signatus
By Zack Wilson

I was always told that you appreciate things more when they cost you something, when you’ve got something personally invested in them. I’ve usually found this to be true. My Lamprologus signatus have made themselves a definite exception to the rule. They’ve got the big shelldweller personality with uncommon good looks to boot, making themselves one of my favorites, and I didn’t pay a dime for them!

Since I became interested in the shelldwelling cichlids of the African Rift Lake, Tanganyika, I’ve had the opportunity to try out the majority of the species. They all display pretty similar behavioral patterns and many have a very similar appearance as well. They are interesting and charming little fish, but once you’ve kept one, you’ve pretty much kept them all. Not so with L. signatus.

Now how I came to have this unique new species was by doing what I should have done earlier in my hobby. I had just joined the ASG (Apistogramma Study Group), and in the following issue my name and a short bio appeared. In my description I indicated an appreciation for the little African shelldwellers. This was apparently an instant bonding key for fellow member, and he quickly offered to send me two pairs of signatus along with a few Apistos I was paying for. I figured “What the hey, why not.” My other shelldweller colonies were pretty much self-maintaining at their rabbit-like numbers and I wasn’t doing much, plus why turn down free fish. I could use something new to try, and I hadn’t even heard of Lamprologus signatus yet. So a few days later I got some free fish in the mail.

They were beautiful. The Apistos were nice too, but the signatus were what really caught my eye. I hadn’t seen anything quite like them before, certainly not in a shelldweller package. The males had beautiful iridescent rainbow colors in all of their fins, and a bold pattern of tiger stripes running through their body and dorsal fins. The females were rather plain looking, except for a pretty pink hue to their bellies; a nice touch. This was something else I wasn’t used to. Usually with my shelldwellers I had to wait for size differences to make the sexes apparent, but these guys were actually colored differently. Aside from color differences, they also have a more unique body shape. Rather than the short, robust, almost froglike appearance of many of the shelldwellers, the signatus have an elongate, torpedo-shaped body. This all gave the appearance of a very different, very attractive little fish unlike the others I had worked with. I was impressed. I would continue to be impressed.

Initially I stuck both pairs in a 30 gallon aquarium with a bunch of Neolamprologus speciosus which weren’t doing much for me. I liked the meleagris better for the money. I didn’t have any other liquid rock tanks opened up at the moment, so they had to make do for the time being. They thrived and pigged out and grew a little. I observed them from time to time, a little extra since they were new acquisitions. They were already showing their personality. The two pairs were pretty interchangeable at that point, and all four seemed to work together to commandeer one end of the tank for themselves. They were greatly outnumbered by the speciosus, but they didn’t let that discourage them. But that spunk and bravery isn’t unusual for a shelldweller. They’re a pretty rough and tumble crowd. It wasn’t until they got down to breeding that many of their unique characteristics became apparent.

After a while a decided it was time to give the signatus some space and also time to move on from the speciosus. Neither were producing fry in this situation, so I moved the speciosus into a growout tank with some Haplochromis fry of about the same size. The signatus loved this and instantly took over the remainder of the tank. This proved to be too little space for these guys though. They had decided they were ready to breed, and one pair really wanted their space. They began to constantly harass the other pair, and in particular the other female. I had another 10 gallon hardwater tank open at the time, so in the losing pair went. With the housekeeping taken care of, the remaining pair went to work. They inspected every shell and tried them all on, finally deciding that they were all good enough. I never could figure out if they had a central shell, or where they spawned. Fry finally appeared a short while later; lots of them. I was used to seeing 7 or 8 fry pop up here and there at short intervals with my other shelldwellers. There must have been 30-40 little signatus swimming about when I found them. They were all obviously from the same spawn. The fry utilized the majority of the territory, spreading fairly evenly over about half of the 36” tank. The parents both guarded them diligently and glided amongst their young. The fry did very well on a diet of freshly hatched baby brine shrimp and crushed flake food. They grew very quickly and by 60 days free-swimming they were approximately 1” long and already sexable. The males were developing their tiger stripes and the female’s cryptic markings had faded away. At this stage they continued to stay in a lose school. During these two months the parents continued to watch the young very attentively and made no further spawning attempts. I found this strategy very different and enjoyable, more reminiscent of non-shelldweller species.

I’ve very much enjoyed having these guys and continue to watch their interactions with fascination. I’m content just to watch them glide about and show off their rainbow colors. Lamprologus signatus has proven itself to me to be a very interesting and slightly more unique member of a personable little group of fish. Even though they didn’t cost me anything, I hold them as a valued part of my collection.


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