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Members of the genus Aulonocara, sometimes
known as Malawi Peacocks, are often victims of the assumption that all
Malawi cichlids can be kept together because they come from a single
lake. In fact Lake Malawi is more like an inland sea, 365 miles long
and 50 wide, with waves and storms, and you never quite stop expecting
the water to taste salty. The shoreline is rocky in places, but there
are also long sandy beaches and river mouths where the bottom is muddy.
There is also, obviously, a lot of open water out in the center. Each
of these habitats has its own fish population, and within each
population there are fishes of various sizes, some of them predators
and some prey.
So to assume they can all live together is a bit
like assuming you can keep a fox and a rabbit together just because
they live in the same bit of countryside!
Aulonocara are not
The first Malawi cichlids to be imported were all
mbuna, the small, usually colorful, rock-dwellers that remain the most
popular species from the lake today. When the first Aulonocara species
began to appear, against a background of almost total ignorance of the
lake and its ecology, the natural thing to do was to add them to an
existing mbuna community. They didn't do well, mostly cowering in
corners, eating little or nothing, showing no color, and eventually
giving up the ghost. They were considered difficult to keep and
impossible to breed.
Unfortunately a lot of people are still putting
'Peacocks' in mbuna tanks today, often encouraged by ignorant
or dishonest dealers who assure them it's quite OK.
So what's the problem? Well, almost all mbuna
are strictly rock-dwellers, while Aulonocara are sand-dwellers.
The sand is sometimes near or even under rocks, but they are
sand-dwellers nonetheless. The habitat difference is very important
because it means that Peacocks and mbuna have little or nothing to do
with each other in the wild, and it also determines their behavior, in
particular their attitude to other fishes.
Mbuna are tightly bound to their habitat and
rarely stray more than a few feet from rocks, unless they are washed
away by storms. They appear to be psychologically unable to do without
the security the rocky habitat offers, and they simply do not venture
out across the areas of open sand adjoining and separating sections of
rocky shoreline. This is why there is so much geographical variation
within species and so many different species--the mbuna at each area of
rocky shore are effectively genetically isolated from those elsewhere.
Another effect of this isolation is that no matter
how high the population density--and the resulting competition for food
and space--in a particular area of rocky shore, no mbuna would dream of
mounting an expedition across the sand to look for somewhere less
crowded. The need to survive in the face of so much competition means
that most mbuna have evolved into tough, territorial little thugs--if
they have the opportunity, as there isn't enough space for every
male to hold a territory. The other males, and females, keep moving
round their particular stretch of rocky habitat, steering clear of
those fish that do have territories. The natural habitat is every bit
as crowded and 'busy' as the mbuna aquarium.
By contrast, Aulonocara have much more
space available. The rocky, mbuna habitats are linear--narrow bands of
rocky shore--but the sand extends out into the lake and the only
limitation on fishes occupying it is that eventually it descends to
depths where there is no longer any oxygen, and hence no fishes.
Sand-dwellers are not subject to overcrowding, and many are only weakly
territorial, if at all. If life becomes 'difficult' at a
particular spot, they can simply swim away to look for a more amenable
one. They do not need to be aggressive and competitive, and hence they
aren't. Such behavior would be a waste of valuable energy. For
their particular lifestyle it is a better survival characteristic to
live quietly and get along with other fishes in their habitat. Except
for predators, of course!
This behavioral incompatibility with mbuna is not
to say that mbuna will continually attack and physically injure
Peacocks. The real problem is the stress of living with such boisterous
fishes in a 'busy' mbuna community. It is stress and fear that
results in Aulonocara hiding in corners and slowly starving
Three types of Peacocks
Aulonocara species actually fall into three
groups: those that live in caves, those that live among scattered
rocks, and strict sand-dwellers that are not usually associated with
rocks at all.
An Aulonocara of this last group could
theoretically swim all the way round the lake over sand if it so chose
and had time enough. These species are also found over mud (at river
mouths) and usually have a wide, sometimes lake-wide, distribution.
They probably don't actually undertake long journeys along the lake
shore, but there are no barriers to create separate populations so
there is regular genetic exchange with neighboring groups. These strict
sand-dwellers are Aulonocara aquilonium (which has been exported
and sold as A. auditor), A. auditor (known only from the
type specimen), A. brevinidus (the "Blue Gold Sand"),
A. gertrudae (the "Multi-Spot" or Jumbo Blue"),
A. guentheri, A. macrochir (possibly a synonym of A.
rostratum), A. nyassae (not the species sold under that
name, which is a form of A. stuartgranti), and A.
The Aulonocara of the intermediate zone
(where rocks meet sand) are found among scattered rocks on sand, mainly
on gently-sloping shoreline where this type of habitat is common. They
make use of the scattered rocks--males dig nests between them, and they
can be used as shelter from predators. These Peacocks feed from the
sand between these rocks as well as over the open sand beyond. Mbuna
are also found feeding in this habitat, but 'upstairs' on the
rocks. They may look as if they are sharing the habitat but in
ecological terms they are occupying two different niches or
microhabitats. There is virtually no competition or interaction, the
mbuna do not hold territory here, and those feeding are probably
non-territorial males and females. A territorial male that slipped out
to the local fast-food outlet would find his home occupied by a
squatter when he got back!
Populations of this type of Aulonocara tend
to be fairly sedentary and localized, though at least one species
(A. stuartgranti) has a very wide overall distribution with
local variants. These Peacocks can move away from trouble if necessary,
they do not need to be aggressive and are not equipped to deal with
aggression except by fleeing. As well as A. stuartgranti (which
has numerous local forms, e.g., the "Blue Regal") they
include Aulonocara baenschi (the "New Yellow Regal" or
"Benga"), A. ethelwynnae ("Chitande
Aulonocara", the only described member of the Chitande Type group,
see below), A. hansbaenschi (the "Red Flush", probably
a synonym of A. stuartgranti), A. hueseri (the
"Night" or "White-Top" Aulonocara), A.
kandeense (the "Blue Orchid"), A. korneliae (the
"Blue Gold"), A. maylandi (the
"Sulphurhead"), A. saulosi (the "Greenface"
or "Green Metallic"), and A. steveni (the "Usisya
Aulonocara", again probably a synonym of A. stuartgranti).
There are also a host of undescribed forms that may or may not be
separate species: the assorted "Chitande types" and various
forms resembling stuartgranti but geographically isolated at islands or
reefs, e.g., the "Blue Regal" (Mbenji Islands), the
"Yellow Regal" (Maleri Islands), and the "Sunshine"
Finally there are a few species, formerly assigned
to a separate genus, Trematocranus, and sometimes called
"Malawi Butterflies", that are found in sandy-bottomed caves
where rocks meet sand. They are Aulonocara jacobfreibergi (with
numerous variants such as "Trevori", "Carolae",
"Reginae", etc), A. trematocephalum (known only from
the type specimen), and some undescribed species, e.g., A. sp.
"Walteri", A. sp. "Lwanda", and A.
But, although these Aulonocara are clearly
associated with rocks they are not in competition with mbuna. They live
communally in large caves while most mbuna prefer small holes among the
rocks above. In addition, the mbuna found where rock meets sand are
usually the less aggressive species that are unable to compete for the
preferred, all-rock habitat higher up. The cave-dwelling
Aulonocara appear to both feed and breed in their caves, at
least some of the time. But they do also forage over the sand--when I
first snorkeled over the sand near the rocks at Otter Point there were
masses of them out in the open. So while they are more rock-bound than
their congeners, they do not have to stick around if, for example, a
large Kampango (the catfish Bagrus meridionalis) picks their
particular cave for breeding.
Exceptions that prove the
Although as a general rule of thumb
Aulonocara should not be kept with mbuna, there are situations
where this is possible. Not, as one might assume, in a huge aquarium
offering both types of habitat, unless we are talking about the sort of
tank used in public aquaria to keep full-grown sharks and the like.
Anything smaller cannot offer enough space for Peacocks to get
completely out of mbuna range. But a few species of mbuna are not (or
only slightly) territorial, their niche in the wild being a wandering
existence, grabbing a mouthful of food here, a mouthful there, and
making a quick exit when the territory owner notices them. They do not
even become territorial when breeding. They include some
Labidochromis (notably L. caeruleus) and all
Iodotropheus; and a large tank with some rocks, a lot of open
sand, and a few of these mbuna can work with Aulonocara species
and other sand-dwellers.
However, in my view the ideal option for the
community containing Peacocks is a mix of other small(ish)
sand-dwellers and the smaller inshore open-water dwellers (the utaka,
e.g., the genus Copadichromis).
Lots of other Malawi cichlids live over sand and
are potential tankmates for Peacocks. Well-known species include
Placidochromis electra and Cyrtocara moorii, but there
are other small sand-dwelling 'haps' that are equally small and
peaceful, such as the sand-dwelling Otopharynx
Members of the sifting genus Lethrinops are
also small and peaceful and require the same sort of 'soft'
sandy substrate. Some of these species are strictly sand-dwelling, some
share the sand-with-rocks habitat, so it is possible to mix-and-match
them with the Peacocks being kept.
As usual, however, it is important not to jump to
jump to conclusions--not all sand-dwelling species are small, and some
are predatory. Taeniolethrinops praeorbitalis, for example, is
large and spends its life--in the wild--moving around 'plowing'
the substrate for food. Fossorochromis rostratus males may look
gorgeous, but they too grow large and feed by digging, and can become
aggressive. The natural foraging territory of a male rostratus is
immense, and it is questionable whether keeping one in a domestic
aquarium is kind. Not all Placidochromis are small--P.
milomo, for example, can attain almost a foot on aquarium rations.
A 4-5-inch Aulonocara may feel threatened by such a large,
robust tankmate, even if the threat is imagined. As when Peacocks are
kept with mbuna, it is stress rather than actual physical harm that is
the main problem.
Nimbochromis are popular aquarium fishes,
and two species, N. venustus and N. polystigma, live over
sand. But they are small-fish predators that may eat any young your
Peacocks produce, and they too are large enough to possibly cause
concern to smaller, albeit too-large-to-eat tankmates like
Aulonocara species. Of course, they encounter one another in the
wild, but the wild is not a small space with solid glass boundaries
preventing escape. More stress!
On the other hand, species can have a bad
reputation that is unjustified. Dimidiochromis
compressiceps is sometimes known as the 'Malawi
Eyebiter', but is perhaps one of the most peaceful and timid
cichlids in the lake, and, like the Peacocks, often doomed to a
miserable life with mbuna. Its natural habitat is among reeds fringing
the lake--hence its laterally compressed body--but it will do very
nicely in a sandy biotope tank with Vallisneria. It is now
thought to feed on fry rather than eyes of other fishes, but
doesn't do either in captivity if fed properly, and prefers to mind
its own business. A good fish for a peaceful sand-dweller
I hope from these few examples it is clear that
you need to check out the size and habits of any sand-dweller rather
than assuming shared habitat means it is suitable to keep with
Peacocks. The two books by Ad Konings listed in the references at the
end of this article are good sources of the necessary information on
these and other Malawi cichlids.
Utaka is the local collective name for shoaling,
plankton-feeding Malawi cichlids typically found in open water near
rocks. Although strictly the name applies to Copadichromis
species, Nyassachromis are usually included in the group for
Again it is important to understand that 'near
rocks' does not a rock-dweller make! Utaka do seem to prefer to
have a rocky backdrop, but, like intermediate-zone Peacocks, they have
the option of moving away (and in three dimensions) if they choose and
they don't interact with mbuna to any extent. Like Peacocks they
are likely to have a miserable time if kept in an mbuna tank. Some of
them build nests on open sand, some between rocks. They make excellent
tankmates for sand-dwellers, but they do need to be kept in a
reasonable number, even if the 'shoal' is very small compared
with the many thousands sometimes seen in the wild. The aquarium shoal
can be a mixture of species (as in the wild), but if you do this choose
species with different-looking females as otherwise neither you nor the
males will be able to sort them out and hybrids may
Again, not all open-water Malawi cichlids are
suitable as tankmates for Peacocks. Some are predatory! A big ncheni
(Rhamphochromis spp.) is an open-water dweller, but it is also a
piscivore. Although the normal prey of these big open-water predators
is usipa or lake sardines (Engraulicypris sardella), they have
large enough mouths to eat smaller cichlids such as Aulonocara
Not all Otopharynx are sand-dwellers, and a
couple--notably O. lithobates--have specialized on cave-dwelling
in the same sort of (large) caves as the cave-dwelling
Aulonocara species. They are attractive and peaceful fishes that
will do well with Peacocks.
Protomelas, by contrast, feed from the tops
of rocks, but, depending on the species, breed in the sort of large,
sandy-floored caves favored by Aulonocara jacobfreibergi &
co, or between rocks in the intermediate zone. The smaller species
(e.g., the 'Stevenis') are another possibility for an
In fact it is not really a good idea to think in
terms of an Aulonocara tank, but rather to think of a peaceful
tank of smallish Malawi cichlids of various types, including Peacocks.
This is because there is one final pitfall--unless you are very
careful, it is not a good idea to keep different species of
Aulonocara with one another!
The problem is, as with the utaka, that the
females of many (most) species are indistinguishable from one another,
so if you mix them up you will never be able to sort them out again.
They are so similar that even the males can't tell them apart, and
then you get hybrids. Worse still, you won't know you have hybrids
because you won't realize that species X has spawned with species Y
because you can't tell the females apart'¦ so the first
person to realize (perhaps) what has happened is the unfortunate
aquarists who are sold your fry, who then find that their fishes
aren't what they expected when they are full-grown and the males
And how are you going to sell the young anyway?
Often you won't see the spawning, you will just discover an
unidentifiable female with a mouthful of eggs, so the only way to know
what they are is to grow them up and see if the males look like one of
your original species. This will require a lot of tank space, and may
be a waste of time and money if they prove to be hybrids and you are
obliged to take the only ethical course and destroy
The same problems apply, of course, if you mix up
local variants of species such as A. jacobfreibergi and A.
stuartgranti. The results won't be hybrids, but they won't
be a recognized geographical form that people want to own.
Hence it is best to keep just one
Aulonocara species or variety per tank, unless you obtain those
where females are clearly different--for example, A. jacobfreibergi
females are very different from most others.
One final caveat: you can't keep all the
suitable species I have listed (Aulonocara, Lethrinops,
peaceful mbuna, assorted smallish 'haps') together unless you
have an immense aquarium--we are again looking at public aquarium size.
Most of these fishes like space, they do not need to be--and
shouldn't be--packed in like mbuna. By all means keep an
Aulonocara species tank (one species, by itself) in a 36-inch
aquarium, but if you want a community then you should be looking at a
72-inch minimum. If you are planning to include utaka then it should be
at least 24 inches deep to allow them to feel 'off-the-bottom'.
There are endless permutations possible, just be careful to think
through all the different elements--choice of fishes, tank size, rocks
or not, etc--when creating yours!
Konings, A. 2003 Back to Nature Guide to Malawi
Cichlids (2nd edition). Cichlid Press, El Paso, USA. 208
Konings, A. 2007 Malawi Cichlids in their Natural
Habitat (4th edition). Cichlid Press, El Paso, USA. 424
male Aulonocara jacobfreibergi; photo Â© Mary
Aulonocara jacobfreibergi is one of the most widely
traded species and eminently suitable for peaceful Malawi cichlid
communities from 55 US gallons/210 litres upwards. Photo Â©
two fish (being sold as Aulonocara 'Rubin Red', though
that identification seems dubious) are both males, but the specimen at
the back is showing brighter colours as befits its higher status in the
pecking order. Like a lot of farmed fish, it's difficult to know if
these fish are a true species, a regional subspecies, or some sort of
hybrid. Photo Â© Neale Monks
Aulonocara habitat in Lake Malawi is open and dominated by sand
rather than rocks, and Aulonocara are consequently much
different in temperament and preferences to the mbuna cichlids adapted
to rocky shores. Photo Â© Roman Sznober
still relatively young, these Aulonocara kandeensis clearly
exhibit the sexual dimorphism typical of the genus. Eventually the male
will become deep blue with a blue-white band across its forehead and
dorsal fin, while the females remain silvery-brown. Photo Â©
Haplochromines adapted to sandy areas such as Cyrtocara moorii
make excellent companions for Aulonocara. Unsuitable for tanks
smaller than 100 US gallons/350 litres. Photo Â© Mary
Dimidiochromis compressiceps, a species that inhabits shallow,
reedy areas around the edge of Lake Malawi, also make excellent
companions for Aulonocara. Unsuitable for tanks smaller than 100
US gallons/350 litres. Photo Â© Mary Bailey
Otopharynx such as these Otopharynx tetrastigma are good
companions for peacock cichlids and work well in peaceful Malawian
communities. Photo Â© Neale Monks
9. It is
this type of shoreline, rather than rocky coast, that is home to many
Aulonocaras and other sand-dwellers. Photo Â© Mary
Haps/Peacock Stocking Options for 330 G tank