Malawian Cichlids: The Mbuna
and their Allies
By Neale Monks
Although Lake Malawi is a little smaller than Lake Tanganyika, it is
home to several times more cichlids species of cichlid, with current
estimates putting the number of Malawian cichlids at around 650 species
compared with around 200 for Lake Tanganyika.
Malawian cichlids, particularly the Mbuna, are incredibly popular among
aquarists thanks to their amazing colours and very outgoing
personalities. They are often compared to coral reef fish in terms of
sheer beauty, with colours ranging from bright yellow and orange through
to blue and purple. But unlike saltwater fish, Malawian cichlids are
relatively easy to maintain. This has made them the fish of choice for
interior designers putting aquaria into offices and restaurants, often
combining the Malawian cichlids with seashells and artificial corals to
complete the illusion!
Unlike the situation in Lake Tanganyika where several different lineages
of cichlid have diversified, in Lake Malawi almost all of the cichlids
are members of a single subfamily, the Haplochrominae, commonly known as
haplochromines or simply ‘haps’.
Most of these form an ecological grouping that the native fishermen call
Mbuna, a name that has caught on in the hobby as well. The word simply
means “rock fish” in the language of the Tonga people of Malawi and is a
reference to close association between these fish and the shallow rocky
reefs and shorelines.
Mbuna are in fact grazing fish feeding primarily on algae and small
animals they scrape from the rocks using modified jaws and teeth. When
alarmed they quickly dive into rocky crevices and wait for danger to
pass. They never stray far from the rocks, exploiting them not just for
safety and food but also as displaying grounds, male Mbuna holding
territories and vigourously driving off any rivals.
Among the most widely traded Mbuna are members of the genera
Labeotropheus, Labidochromis, Maylandia,
Melanochromis and Pseudotropheus.
Mbuna come in two sizes, the standard sort being around 12-15 cm/5-6" in
length, and the dwarf species closer to 8 cm/3". For their size though
these fish are very aggressive, so don’t be lulled into thinking the
small species can be treated like dwarf cichlids and added to your
community tank -- they can’t!
There are differences in personality though, with some species being
less aggressive than others, but you will need to research this aspect
of their biology carefully before mixing different species. Some species
are prone to becoming hyperdominant given the chance. This means that
the dominant male essentially takes over the entire aquarium making life
extremely difficult (sometimes impossible) for the other fish in the
tank. Of this more will be said later, in the section on Social
Mbuna tend to be very aggressive, though this varies somewhat depending
on the species. So while extremely colourful and great fun to keep, they
generally work best in their own aquarium away from other Malawian
cichlids. This also helps at feeding time: most Mbuna need to be given a
greens-based diet rich in algae, spinach, tinned peas, and other such
foods. When fed too much meat, they tend to become unhealthy and prone
to “Malawi Bloat”, a dropsy-like disease that is very difficult to
All Mbuna are maternal mouthbrooders and tend to be sexually dimorphic
once mature. Some species only show slight sexual dimorphism though, as
is the case with the Zebra Mbuna Maylandia zebra (formerly
known as Pseudotropheus zebra). Here both fish have the same
basic colouration and while the male has coloured spots on his anal fins
known as egg dummies, sometimes the females do as well, making this
particular characteristic an unreliable indicator of gender.
Other species show very strong sexual dimorphism, at least when the
males are in breeding condition. The Auratus Mbuna Melanochromis
auratus is well known for this. Females and non-territory holding
males are yellow with black stripes, but territory holding males turn
almost completely blue-black except for a few blue-white stripes on the
flanks and fins.
During spawning females place their eggs on the substrate and then turn
around to collect them. As they do so they peck at the egg dummies on
the anal fin of the male, causing him to release his sperm and fertilise
the eggs in her mouth.
The Function of Mbuna Eggspots
While it has often been supposed that the female mistakes the egg dummy
spots on the male’s anal fin for her eggs, this may not be the case.
They don’t look much like eggs in terms of size and colour, and the
female doesn’t necessarily peck at the egg spots during spawning.
Egg spots may in fact be more about female mate choice than anything
else. Under laboratory conditions, female Maylandia lombardoi
preferred males with the biggest egg spots regardless of how many there
were, whereas female Haplochromis elegans and Maylandia
aurora both preferred males with the most egg spots, regardless of
the size of those spots. Curiously Maylandia zebra doesn’t seem
to have any preference in terms of the size of the eggspots or their
Another explanation of eggspots comes from studies of Labeotropheus
in the wild. Males that were dominant were found to have more eggspots
than the non-dominant males. Larger fish tended to have more eggspots
than smaller fish. So females Labeotropheus could be using
eggspots as a way of judging between males so they can choose the best
possible partner for mating.
Yet another explanation is that eggspots make males more visible to
predators. Any male that can survive to sexual maturity despite this
‘handicap’ must be alert and strong, making it prime genetic material
for choosy females. Fish in clear water habitats have smaller eggspots
than those in murky water, perhaps reflecting the need to strike a
balance between making males slightly more attractive to prey and simply
making them ridiculously easy prey. After all, there’s no advantage to
the females if all the males get eaten: what the females want is for the
weaker males to be eaten and the better males to survive.
A final explanation worth mentioning is the relationship between the
eggspots and diet. Eggspots are made from very specific pigments known
as carotinoids. These cannot be synthesised by the fish, and need to
come from their diet. For males to have big, bright eggspots it needs to
eat lots of good quality food and be relatively free of parasites.
Consequently females can accurately judge the fitness of males by
looking at their eggspots.
Malawian Cichlids: Everything else
Closely related to the Mbuna are the Peacock Cichlids of the genus
Aulonocara. Unlike the Mbuna, the Peacock Cichlids are open water
predators feeding on a wide variety of prey from insect larvae through
to small fish. While territorial, they are significantly less aggressive
than the Mbuna and can make excellent community fish. They are also
beautifully coloured, and most are manageably sized between 10-15
cm/4"-6". Peacock Cichlids are maternal mouthbrooders and relatively
easy to breed.
Another group of haplochromines kept in aquaria are the Utaka including
the genera Copadichromis and Mchenga. These are
medium-sized fish around 15 to 20 cm long that live in open water, often
some distance away from the substrate. Males maintain territories while
females move about in small groups. Again, these cichlids are maternal
The Mcheni are the large (up to 50 cm) predatory cichlids of the genus
Rhamphochromis. They feed extensively on small fishes, particularly
the lake sardine Engraulicypris sardella that, despite its
name, is actually a type of barb. Mcheni are superficially very
barracuda-like in shape and habits. Despite their large size and
predatory habits, these cichlids are rather peaceful and do not mix well
with more aggressive cichlids. They are maternal mouthbrooders.
There are Tilapias in the lake, members of the genus Oreochromis
and known as Chambo. Like other tilapiine cichlids these are open water
fish that feed on algae, zooplankton and organic detritus. Being rather
large (around 30 cm) and good to eat, their value is as food fish rather
than aquarium fish, but they sometimes get traded. In common with other
Oreochromis they are maternal mouthbrooders.
Malawian cichlids expect clean, moderately warm, hard, alkaline water.
Note that the addition of aquarium salt to the Malawi aquarium is not
required or even recommended. Sodium chloride does nothing to harden
water or steady the pH, and prolonged exposure to salt has been
implicated as a cause of the disease known as Malawi Bloat.
Filtration and water changes are both critical elements of the
maintenance of a Malawi cichlid community. Use a filter system that
provides water at least 6-8 times the volume of the tank in turnover per
hour. The more water movement the better, and in summer especially
supplementary aeration may be required to keep these active,
oxygen-hungry fish happy. Perform regular water changes, ideally 50% or
more per week.
In terms of water chemistry the precise values don’t matter, but stability
does. Aim for pH 7.8-8.5, general hardness at least 12 degrees dH, and
carbonate hardness of at least 6 degrees KH. Water temperature should be
kept around 25 degrees C/77 degrees F.
Decorating the Malawian tank
Mbuna require lots of rockwork as well as swimming space. They rarely
stray far from rocks in the wild, using them as hiding places, feeding
patches and displaying areas. Being highly territorial, they’ll fight
over the best hidey-holes, so you will need a lot of rock to create the
right habitat for them. Mbuna are best kept in their own aquarium, with
the rockwork covering most of the back of the tank, as far up towards
the surface of the water as possible.
Obviously creating such a tall and heavy structure requires some planning.
Silicone sealant can be used to hold chunks of tufa or lava rock
together to prevent them from tumbling down and damaging the tank. One
good approach is to silicone the rocks onto plastic or slate panels that
you can then bury in the substrate. Plastic cable ties can also be used
to bind together rocks as well. Do not underestimate the digging
abilities of these cichlids: if they can undermine your rockwork and
cause it to collapse, they will!
Tufa rock has the benefit of hardening the water and raising the pH,
optimising the living conditions in the aquarium. You can use other
types of rock as well, including granite, slate and limestone. Avoid
rocks with any metallic seams though as these run the risk of poisoning
Coral sand is often used in Malawi tanks. The bright yellow-white colour
doesn’t seem to upset the cichlids unduly, and unlike many other fish,
coral sand doesn’t cause these cichlids to tone down their colours. You
can also use river sand, silver sand, or even plain gravel. Because
these cichlids like to dig, don’t use anything too ‘sharp’, such as
sharp silver sand or glass sands (like Tahitian Moon Sand).
Bogwood can be used, but understand that it will exert a pH reducing
effect that will not be welcomed. If you choose to use bogwood, ensure
the aquarium has sufficient carbonate hardness that the pH is not
affected between water changes.
With a few exceptions like Rhamphochromis, the cichlids of Lake
Malawi tend to be aggressive and territorial. There are two ways to
handle this. One approach is to understock the aquarium, and ensure that
there is only one male with a harem of females. This benefit of this
method is that it allows you to maintain good water quality very easily.
You can also watch your fish behaving naturally, and breeding your
cichlids with the risk of hybridisation becomes possible, something that
may be profitable if you are keeping a rare or wild-caught variety of
The other approach is to overstock the tank, using sheer numbers to
prevent any one fish from being bullied too much. This is standard
practise in many quarters where Mbuna are being kept. Without being able
to secure a territory, males becomes less aggressive. The downside is
that an overstocked tank is difficult to maintain, and the aquarist
needs to work very hard to ensure good water quality and avoid disease.
So while this approach is often advocated by hardcore cichlid collectors
who want to keep one of everything in their tank, this isn’t the way to
go if you’re after a low-maintenance aquarium. If you have lots of
different species mixed together you also run the very real risk of
hybridisation, meaning that any offspring produced won’t be any one
species or regional variety.
Whether under- or overstocked, Malawi tanks need to be relatively large:
a 200 litres/55 gallons should be viewed as the absolute minimum for a
community tank, and even a lightly stocked single species tank
containing a harem of one male and a few females won’t work if it is
much smaller than that. For the aquarist wanting to keep a large variety
of Malawi cichlids, big tanks 300 litres/75 gallons upwards are
Not all Malawian cichlids are equally aggressive. Mbuna tend to be more
aggressive than Peacock Cichlids and Utaka, so mixing these together
isn’t always a good idea. Even within the Mbuna, there is a definite
hierarchy in terms of aggression. At one end of the scale,
Iodotropheus and Labidochromis tend to be relatively mild
and easy to accommodate in a community tank. You can mix them relatively
painlessly with Peacock Cichlids and Utaka provided the aquarium
provides adequate hiding places and swimming space for all concerned.
But at the other extreme are species of Melanochromis and
Maylandia that tend to be so aggressive that they don’t just bully
weaker fish but will sometimes kill them. As a rule, males are most
aggressive to members of their own species and other members of their
genus, though in many cases males will be aggressive towards other fish
of similar colouration as well.
To avoid problems with aggression and hybridisation, it is almost always
best to choose only one species per genus, and then select from each
genus species that are comparable in terms of aggression and
territoriality. There are lots of Malawi cichlid books on the market by
expert writers like Ad Konings, so there’s really no excuse for impulse
purchasing. Furthermore, buying the wrong fish can be disastrous, both
in terms of dead fish and wasted money.
A lot of the Mbuna sold in aquarium shops are hybrids. These should be
avoided like the plague! Hybrids are unpredictable in terms of size,
behaviour and colour. If paying a bit more means that you can get a true
species or geographical variant, then that’s the way to go.
Conversely, don’t dump hybrids on retailers. It ruins the hobby for
everyone if people think they’re getting one particular species but end
up with some kind of hybrid. Unless you can house your hybrid offspring,
painlessly destroy them.
There are literally dozens of species and hundreds of variants in the
trade, so picking out a few species complete representative of their
diversity is impossible. The following a few personal favourites widely
traded and known to do well in aquaria even when kept by relatively
This is medium-sized Peacock Cichlid that gets to about 10 cm/4" in
length, the females tending to be a little smaller than the males.
Colours are variable but always impressive. Males in breeding condition
have lemon-yellow bodies with blue around the face and throat and a few
vertical blue bands on the flanks. Females are rather drab brown with
grey vertical bands on the flanks. There are numerous regional varieties
available. This species tends to be fairly good in community tanks
compared with other members of the genus, and makes an excellent Peacock
Cichlid for beginners.
This plankton-eating Mbuna is available in lots of regional varieties.
In the standard variety, the males are brilliant blue with dark blue
vertical bands and a few yellow eggspots on the anal fin. Females are
paler shades of blue. A popular variety collected from Nkhata Bay has a
bright yellow dorsal fin. Males are rather aggressive and highly
territorial, but their modest size (around 10 cm/4") makes them a good
choice for robust community tanks alongside things like Maylandia
zebra and Labeotropheus fuelleborni.
There are several species and numerous varieties of these sardine-like
plankton eaters. They are all slender, incredibly active fish often
brightly coloured once settled in. Cyprichromis are schooling
fish that need to be kept in groups of at least six specimens.
Maintenance can be tricky in the wrong aquarium, so plan around their
needs. They need lots of open water, a strong water current, excellent
water quality, and regular feedings of small live or frozen foods such
as bloodworms, daphnia, mysids, etc. They are rather peaceful and
actually work much better with peaceful Tanganyikan cichlids rather than
other Malawians; Altolamprologus compressiceps,
Julidochromis spp., and the less aggressive lamps like
Neolamprologus leloupi would all work rather well.
This is the famous Malawi Blue Dolphin, and one of the most impressive
of all the Malawian cichlids commonly traded. While territorial, it
isn’t especially aggressive despite its large (20 cm/8") adult size.
Colouration varies depending on which variety is being kept, but most
are bright blue with vague dark blue bands on the flanks. Adult males
develop a huge nuchal hump that does indeed make them look a lot like
dolphins. Females lack this hump and also tend to be quite a bit
smaller. Cyrtocara moori have a peculiar feeding mode in the
wild. They follow substrate-sifting cichlids about, snatching up scraps
of food that are thrown up into the water. In the wild they are
completely opportunistic and will eat just about anything. An excellent
species for the community aquarium, but given its size, only suitable
for the largest of tanks.
A very easy-going Mbuna is, along with Labidochromis caeruleus,
one of the very best species for the beginner. It is quite small, no
more than 9 cm/3.5" in length, but is also unusual in that the males are
essentially non-territorial. In a reasonably spacious tank with adequate
hiding places a group of males and females will get along nicely.
Another great advantage to this species is its omnivorous diet; unlike
the majority of Mbuna this species eats a mix of plant and animal foods,
and in the aquarium will consume just about anything and remain
perfectly healthy. By contrast herbivorous Mbuna become sick if they eat
too much animal protein. The only downside to this species is that by
comparison the brilliant blues and oranges of many other Mbuna, the
metallic purple-brown of these species is somewhat subdued. Nonetheless
this is an excellent fish for the aquarium and highly recommended. Take
care not to mix it with more aggressive species though;
Labidochromis caeruleus and Aulonocara spp. make ideal
A moderately aggressive algae-eating Mbuna available in dozens of
regional varieties sporting differences in colour. Typically adult males
are blue whereas females are orange. An orange-blotch form, where the
female is orange with black blotches, is especially popular with
aquarists. Although wild fish rarely exceed 12 cm/5" in length, in
captivity this fish routinely gets quite a bit bigger, up to 15 cm/6"
being common. Males are pushy and tend to harass the females, and under
some circumstances become “hyperdominant” bullying everything else in
the aquarium as well.
This fairly placid omnivorous Mbuna naturally occurs in a variety of
colour forms, but it is the bright yellow variety that is most widely
traded. Sexual dimorphism is not strong, particularly so given that
unlike most other Mbuna, eggspots are not seen on the anal fin of this
species. Males tend to be bigger and the black streak along the dorsal
fin turns blue when they are in breeding condition. Maximum size is
around 10 cm/4" in the wild, but sometimes a little more in the
aquarium. Usually a reliable good community species provided it is not
mixed with very aggressive species such as Melanochromis spp.
that might harm it.
Possibly the most popular Mbuna in the hobby, Maylandia zebra,
formerly known as Pseudotropheus zebra, is generally easy to
obtain in a wide range of varieties. It is a strict herbivore in the
wild, and when fed too much processed or meaty food tends to bloat and
become sickly. Males are extremely belligerent, and can become
hyperdominant. They also tend to bully females that are brooding eggs.
Mix only with robust cichlids, such as Labeotropheus and
Melanochromis spp. Avoid mixing with other Maylandia or
Pseudotropheus because of the risk of hybridisation. Because they
are so outgoing and alert, these cichlids are highly entertaining. A lot
of hybrid “African cichlids” are sold as Maylandia zebra, so it
pays to shop around and look for wild-caught or properly identified
A highly aggressive but extremely beautiful Mbuna. This species is famed
for its strongly dimorphic colouration. Females and quiescent males are
yellow with a few longitudinal black stripes, whereas territorial males
are almost completely black with a few yellow stripes. Maximum size is
around 11 cm/4.5", with the males a bit bigger than the females. Because
they are so pushy this species is best kept with species of similar
aggressiveness and at least slightly larger size. They can and will kill
milder tankmates unable to defend themselves.
- A properly maintained Mbuna aquarium rivals any reef tank in terms
of colour and activity (© Neale Monks)
- Cyprichromis are peaceful, schooling cichlids that can’t be
mixed with most Malawians but combine much better with the more peaceful
Tanganyikan cichlids (© Neale Monks)
WWM on African Cichlids
Malawi Community Tanks by Mary Bailey,
Malawi Peacocks, The Genus
Aulonocara by Mary Bailey,
South American Cichlids,
Cichlid ID 1,
African Cichlid Selection,
African Cichlid Systems,
African Cichlid Feeding,
African Cichlid Disease,
Cichlids of the World, Cichlid
Malawi Cichlid Systems,