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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 mbuna!
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 away.
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. rostratum.
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" (Chidunga Rocks).
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. sp. "Masinje".
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 rule
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 species.
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 tank.
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 aquarium purposes.
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 result.
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 and utaka!
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 Aulonocara tank.
One final pitfall--hybridisation
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 color up.
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 them.
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 pp.
Konings, A. 2007 Malawi Cichlids in their Natural Habitat (4th edition). Cichlid Press, El Paso, USA. 424 pp.
1. Mature male Aulonocara jacobfreibergi; photo Â© Mary Bailey
2. 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© Mary Bailey
3. These 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
4. Typical 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
5. Although 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© Neale Monks
6. 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 Bailey
7. 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
8. 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 Bailey
Haps/Peacock Stocking Options for 330 G tank