Mbuna Cichlids Guide And Compatibility Chart | Best Mbuna Cichlids For You

Aug 15, 2021

Mbuna cichlids

Image credits: Calwhiz on Flickr under Creative Commons license

Mbunas are best known for their anger. Yes, they’re territorial, and feuds often end with a couple of fallen soldiers. But mbunas are so much more than little angry fishes. They’re hardy, versatile – and together, an explosion of colors. 

Mbuna Cichlids Introduction 

Let me introduce you to Mbuna cichlids. There are over 100 species of these beautiful fishes – all hailing from the ninth biggest lake on the planet – Lake Malawi. Broadly, the name Mbuna refers to any of the rock-dwelling cichlid species of Lake Malawi. 

Altogether, Lake Malawi is home to over a thousand species of cichlids. And among them, 13 generas are classified as Mbunas. They are:

  1. Tropheops 
  2. Pseudotropheus 
  3. Abactochromis 
  4. Cyathochromis 
  5. Petrotilapia 
  6. Melanochromis 
  7. Cynotilapia 
  8. Genyochromis 
  9. Gephyrochromis 
  10. Maylandia 
  11. Labidochromis 
  12. Labeotropheus 
  13. Iodotropheus 

And what’s interesting about Mbunas cichlids is there’s no other family of aquarium fish than them that can be kept together in a single tank. 

Yes, you read that right! Your average Mbuna tank can easily hold 30 different species. Bigger tank? Over 50 species.

It’s incredible how they can all be kept exactly in the same environment and fed the same food. 

You cannot keep 30 different species of South/Central American fish in the same tank. It would cause mayhem. Even a standard fish tank would come unstuck if it had to hold that many species since they all need to be kept with their own kinds. 

And that’s what makes Mbuna a cult favorite of all times ever since they were first introduced to the fishkeeping hobby. 

Mbunas: A Myriad Of Colors

Mbuna cichlid colors
Caption: Scot Ableman on Flickr under Creative Commons license

Mbunas come in such vibrant and eccentric colors that they’re often mistaken for marine fish. One qualification a fish needs to qualify to be an aquarium staple is color. And mbunas graduate with flying colors – no pun intended. 

Blue, green, red, yellow, stripes, spots – you name it, and there’s an exact Mbuna that exists. Of course, the most frequent shades are orange and yellow – but they come in every color you can imagine. 

To paint you a picture, there are around 100 species of Mbunas in different shades of blue. 

There’s one more area where these fish hit the jackpot. In most species, males sport vibrant colors, and females are drab. But with Mbunas, both males and females display dazzling colors. 

Water Chemistry For Mbunas 

Temperature 75-79°F
pH 7.5 or upwards
General Hardness 7 degrees or higher 
Carbonate Hardness10-12 degrees
Nitrate below 40ppm
Minimum Tank Size  40 gallons
Ideal Tank Size 55 gallons and above
Decors Rocks for hiding and territory marking 
Oxygenation airstone or Venturi 

To give the best life possible within the 4 walls of the tank, it’s essential to understand how mbunas live in their natural state. Mbuna cichlids are natives of the beautiful Lake Malawi in Africa’s Great Rift Valley. 

And it wouldn’t be wrong to call this lake a freshwater ocean. Okay, that might be a stretch, but early explorers really did confuse it for an ocean. It is 50 miles wide, 360 miles long, and 706 meters deep. 

A lake of this stature comes complete with sandy beaches, rocky cliffs, and whatnot. So, the mbunas you and I love really swim in blue, sunlit water around the rocky cliffs. 

And as you guess, the water parameters in this big lake are really, really stable. So, mbunas are used to clear, pollutant-free water that’s highly oxygenated. And how can you emulate this chemistry in the tank?

You’ll need the support of mechanical filtration, biological filtration, frequent water changes, and plenty of aeration for that. 

And due to a high level of tectonic plate activity under the lake, Malawi is exceptionally rich in minerals which lend it high levels of pH, general hardness (GH), and carbonate hardness (KH). 

As for decors, you can add calcareous, lime-based decorations or filter media to keep pH, GH and KH buffered. And it’s a big no-no to reverse osmosis water without ample amounts of Malawi cichlid salts. 

Here’s a link to Seachem’s Cichlid Lake Salt that’s fortified with essential minerals like calcium and magnesium to maintain the water’s alkalinity. 

Ideal Tank Size For Mbunas 

Credits: B W on Flickr under Creative Commons license

In the wild, mbunas plateau at around 3-4 inches. But due to regular consumption of rich food in captivity, they can grow up to 5-6 inches. Also, as you already know, they’re territorial and aggressive. So, a 120cm/4 feet tank or larger is ideal to start with. 

Don’t get swayed to raise them in a small tank because you saw a breeder or a shop do that. Raising them in a smaller setup requires a lot of expertise, and it’s actually fundamentally wrong. 

Dwarf cichlids like mbambas and afras can even thrive in 90-100cm/36-40in tanks. But if possible, get a taller and broader tank with volumes greater than 40 gallons. 

When selecting a tank for mbunas, always take inspiration from their natural habitat. The ideal tank would be deep and wide. For instance, a 120 x 60 x 60cm/48 x 24 x 24 tank would be a lot better at echoing the lake-like feel than a 120 x 30 x 30 cm/48 x 12 x 12 in tank. The latter, at best, would replicate a small and shallow stream, which is a far cry from what mbunas are used to. 

How To Breed Mbunas?

All mbuna species are mouthbrooders like other haplochromine species of Lake Malawi. They’re polygamous fish, in which the male will mate with several females during one breeding season. Mbunas breed quite quickly in captivity too. If you’re serious about raising the fry, it’s best to raise them in a separate tank. 

Mbunas reach sexual maturity when they’re about 3 inches long – they usually reach this milestone on their first birthday. The males are bigger and more intensely colored than their female counterparts. In fact, the dominant male of the territory will have the richest colors. 

Given their affinity for rocks, it’s no surprise that mbunas spawn among rocks, crevices, and caves. Therefore, if you want to breed mbunas, it’s vital to create several rocky hideouts in the tank. 

The onset of the breeding season is marked with the male claiming a small territory which he deems to be the right spawning site. Once the spot is finalized, he will show himself off to the female. He will dance, shimmy, vibrate his body, and erect his fins as he attempts to lure the female to the nesting spot. 

If the female is spawning, she will eventually consent and travel together to the nesting spot. There, the couple will engage in a rendezvous and swim close to one another in a circling fashion. 

After that, the female will lay eggs on a flat surface and immediately scoop them inside her mouth. Here’s an intriguing bit. All male mbunas sport egg spots on their anal fins that eerily look similar to, well, eggs. 

As the female picks her egg, the male will show off the egg spots on his anal fin. The unassuming female thinks it’s her eggs and goes behind the male to retrieve them. At this moment, the male will release milt directly into her mouth – efficiently fertilizing the eggs. When the eggs are fertilized, the male will chase the female away – ungrateful! 

The mother will incubate the eggs for around 4 weeks. She will fast for the entirety of the holding period. If you plan to move her to the fry tank, make sure to do it towards the end of the holding period. Doing so at a later stage lessens the chances of her swallowing or spitting the eggs. 

Once the eggs hatch and fry emerge, you can move the mother back to the main tank. That’s because being MIA for too long will de-rank her in the pecking order – and she’ll be on the receiving end of endless bullying and tormenting.

A single batch of Mbuna fry usually consists of 25-35 individuals. They rely on the nutrient-dense yolk sac for nutrition for the first few days. And by the time they’re free swimming, they’re big enough to snack on baby brine shrimp, pulverized flake food, and cyclops. 

Don’t Hybridize Mbunas!

Mbunas readily hybridize in a community. And we’re all in for equality and acceptance, but we don’t encourage hybridizing mbunas! So, for starters, make sure you don’t keep the females without a male of their own species in a community tank. 

And if you ever suspect the fry are hybrids, please don’t spread them in the hobby. 

Hybridizing mbuna will not create new species. In fact, it will put those unique colors, patterns, and specializations that have evolved over millions of years in jeopardy. The remarkable diversity of mbunas would be diminished. 

Mbuna Cichlid’s Diet 

All Mbuna cichlids are herbivores except for those belonging to the Labiochromis genus. In the wild, these fish feed on aufwuchs. Aufwuch refers to this special growth on rocks which consists of strands of algae, biofilm, and small critters. 

In certain seasons, they will even nibble on zooplankton that blooms higher up in the water. 

These cichlids’ underslung mouth helps them access and rip off the best algae growth in choppy waters with effortless levering – keeping their bodies flat against the rocks as they nibble. 

You can give them commercial pellets, flakes, and granules specifically designed for herbivorous species in captivity. Of course, seafood wafers and freshly blanched veggies make great options too. 

Make sure that you don’t give protein-rich and fatty food formulated for carnivorous cichlids from South America.

Here’s a link to my choice for cichlid food fortified with veggies, fruits, minerals, and protein. It’s specially formulated for African cichlids. And most importantly, it’s by Ron – someone who’s bred African cichlids for more than 25 years! 

So, I bet he knows what he’s doing! 

You can sometimes give animal protein sparingly. 

In the wild, each species of Mbuna uses its specialization – whether it’s for eating long algae, short algae, insect larvae, invertebrates, or eggs. However, in captivity, these specializations are seldom called upon. 

Constantly snacking on rich and fatty food often leads to the infamous Malawi bloat – although there are other causative factors like excess salt and stress. 

Malawi bloat is characterized by swelling of the stomach and neck. Also, the eyes bulge. If not treated on time, this disease is straight-up fatal. 

Luckily, there’s an effective and proven solution. If you’re interested in reading up on it, here’s the link

How To Manage Anger In Mbunas?

Mbunas, especially males, are notorious for their anger – and for all the right reasons. The mindset behind that anger is they want to be the only male haplochromine in the whole of Lake Malawi, fan their fins on the best real estate, and have a sexually charged female visit every hour or so. But, unfortunately, that’s not the case in our tiny tanks. 

Within the four walls of an aquarium, a male will inevitably have several confrontations with rival males and non-sexual females – much to his dismay! This then results in bloodbaths and sexual assaults. 

So, the first step to manage aggression in mbunas is playing up with the decors. Add plenty of rocks. Rocks give mbunas a purpose in their lives – a sense of belonging. I’m not even exaggerating here. It’s something they will feed, rest, and breed on. 

Also, don’t forget to pile the rocks together so that the females, fry, and subdominant males can take refuge in the crevices as they hide from the dominant male. 

You can pile the rocks even higher to completely obscure the line of sight across the aquarium. Making prominent visual barriers will help two males coexist peacefully as they each reign on their small territory. 

Another effective option you have is overstocking. If your tank’s filtration and aeration mechanisms are in place, you can go all out. 20 is the absolute minimum number for overstocking. You can even keep 30 or 40. 

Overstock the tank with similarly-sized and similarly-aged fish. And make sure to outnumber each male with at least 2 females, so the poor female isn’t singled out and bullied. 

The way overstocking works is that the angry male can’t spend too long away from his rock to chase and harass females and subdued males as another fish can easily take up his residence when he’s away. 

Passing on one’s genetic lineage overpowers every other emotion in nature. So, if you’re interested in going through some proven tips to control aggression in cichlids, I bet you don’t want to miss this article

Which Is The Best Mbuna Cichlid For You?

There are so many species of mbuna cichlids available for sale, it can be pretty overwhelming to know what’s best for you. Often, popularity doesn’t positively correlate with ease of keeping. 

For example, melanochromis auratus, in my opinion, are the most well-known mbunas in the fishkeeping scene. This is because they’re hardy and durable, and attractive as juveniles. But they’re also one of the most aggressive species that will leave no stone unturned to dominate and terrorize your tank. On top of that, as adults, they lose most of their beautiful humbug patterns and retain a rather drab color. 

Similarly, for most, the first foray into dazzling blue fish is either baby blue-colored pseudotropheus socolofi or metriaclima lombardoi with blue vertical bandings. And once again, both of these fish can get highly offensive – spelling trouble in community tank settings. 

Thus, what looks good on paper may not always be the right choice for you. 

Don’t worry. 

Here’s A List Of Beginner-Friendly Mbuna Cichlids For You:

Credits: Dennis Amith on Flickr under Creative Commons license

  • Chilumba Cichlid (Tropheops chilumba)
  • Livingstonii Cichlid (Pseudotropheus livingstonii)
  • Maingano Cichlid Melanochromis cyaneorhabdos 
  • Perlmutt Cichlid (Labidochromis perlmutt)
  • Freibergi Cichlid (Labidochromis freibergi)
  • Pearl of Likoma Cichlid (Melanochromis joanjohnsonae)
  • Yellow-tail Acei Cichlid (Pseudotropheus acei)
  • Perspicax Cichlid (Pseudotropheus perspicax)
  • Dialeptos Cichlid (Melanochromis dialeptos)
  • Electric Yellow Cichlid (Labidochromis caeruleus)

If you’re a novice keeper, bigger and aggressive cichlids can be a handful. 

Here’s a list of large and aggressive mbuna species to avoid:

  • Blue Mbuna Cichlid (Labeotropheus fuelleborni)
  • Bumblebee Cichlid(Metriaclima crabro)
  • Kennyi Cichlid (Metriaclima lombardoi)
  • Pindani Cichlid (Pseudotropheus socolofi)
  • Ice Blue Cichlid (Metriaclima greshakei)
  • Auratus Cichlid (Melanochromis auratus) 

In my opinion, all mbuna cichlids are created equal – but not everyone’s suited for everyone, if that makes sense. So there’s inevitably going to be a list of ‘best mbuna cichlids’ based on parameters like popularity, appearance, and behavior. 

Here’s a list of the best mbuna cichlids:

  • Bumblebee Cichlid (Pseudotropheus crabro)
  • Yellow Lab Cichlid (Labidochromis caeruleus)
  • Red Zebra Cichlid (Maylandia estherae)
  • Yellow Tail Acei Cichlid (Pseudotropheus sp.)
  • Golden Cichlid (Melanochromis auratus)
  • Auratus Cichlid (Melanochromis auratus)
  • Elongatus Jewel Spot Cichlid (Pseudotropheus elongatus)
  • Clown Lab Cichlid (Labidochromis chisumulae)
  • Blue Zebra Cichlid (Maylandia callainos)

Mbuna Cichlids Compatibility Chart 

Mbunas are hardy fish that can survive a wide range of water conditions. But that doesn’t mean you can pair them up with just about anybody. You should always consider their aggressiveness when selecting ideal partners for them. 

Herbivore Mbunas Are Compatible With:

  • Other herbivore mbunas 
  • Omnivore mbunas 
  • Lake Victoria haplochromis 
  • Lake Tanganyika Herbivores (the tank should be big enough)

Omnivore Mbunas Are Compatible With:

  • Lake Malawi Herbivore Mbunas
  • Lake Victoria Haplochromis 
  • Lake Tanganyika Herbivores 
  • Lake Malawi Aulonocara, haps, and peaceful predators 

Mbunas Are Incompatible With:

  • Lake Tanganyika Carnivores (They’ll nip on fins and even devour small mbunas)
  • Giant predator fish

Final Words: Mbuna Cichlids Guide 

So, that’s a roundup of all the essential information you need to read up on mbuna cichlids to keep a thriving mbuna tank. You just need to get a few fundamental things right, and you’ll end up with the most amazing-looking, arresting fish tank you could ever ask for. 

Happy Reading!

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rohit gurung author at urbanfishkeeping

About Rohit Gurung

My never-ending love and fascination with Aquascaping started when I received a red-eared turtle for my 10th birthday.

Apart from researching and writing, I spend hours gazing at my 3 turtles. And yeah, I bask alongside them too.