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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!

The Mbuna
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 Behaviour below.
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 treat.

Mbuna Reproduction
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 number.
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 mouthbrooders.

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.

Environmental Conditions
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 your fish.
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.

Social Behaviour
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 cichlid.

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 essential.

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.

Favourite Malawians
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 inexperienced hobbyists.

Aulonocara baenschi

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.

Cynotilapia afra

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.

Cyrtocara moori

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.

Iodotropheus sprengerae

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 tankmates.

Labeotropheus fuelleborni

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.

Labidochromis caeruleus

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.

Maylandia zebra
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 stock.

Melanochromis auratus

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)


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