Mbuna are colourful, hardy cichlids that are easy to breed in the aquarium. But they’re also highly territorial fish, so get things wrong and you could have a blood bath. Here’s how to avoid a rocky horror…
Above: Cynotilapia afra has the mbuna's classic blue vertical bars.
WORDS: JEREMY GAY
Fishkeepers the world over struck gold with the introduction of the small colourful rock dwelling cichlids from East Africa’s Lake Malawi. The mbuna as they are known (pronounced mmm-boon-a or mu-boon-a,) are hardy, easy to keep, easy to breed, and widely available.
One qualification any aquarium fish needs to become really popular is colour, and mbuna deliver this in swathes. Yellow and orange are common mbuna colours but importantly, and rarely for any wild-type tropical fish is blue, and this is where the mbuna excel, with literally hundreds of bright blue species, which have tricked many an onlooker into thinking these totally freshwater fish are in fact marine.
Next is the number of species you can keep together. No other aquarium is capable of holding as many different species of fish per volume as a Malawi cichlid tank. An average mbuna community could hold 30 different species — a large tank 50 or more. You wouldn’t be able to keep 30 Central American species in one tank — it would be chaos — and even a community tank of fish from many different, very varied genera would struggle to hold that many because so many species need to be kept in groups of their own kind. This all adds to the overall appeal of mbuna.
Metriaclima lombardoi is a larger, more aggressive species and is best avoided by the novice mbuna keeper. Image by AquariumPhoto.dk
Mbuna in nature
To keep mbuna at their best we must first look at how and where they live in nature. Mbuna are endemic to Lake Malawi in Africa’s Great Rift Valley — a 3,700-mile long trench created by the African tectonic plate tearing apart. Malawi is a gigantic crevice. It filled with river water and fish — and these then changed, evolved and adapted to suit their new, lacustrine environment.
And it’s big. Malawi is the ninth largest lake in the world and the second deepest, at 706m. Its 360 miles long, 50 miles wide and some 11,000 square miles in area. That’s bigger than Wales…
A lake of that size comes complete with waves, rocky cliffs and sandy beaches. Tales abound of early explorers mistaking it for an ocean, which let’s face it, you would.
Lake Malawi is the ninth largest lake in the world. Image by MP & C Piednoir, Aquapress.com
Cichlids entered Malawi via its tributaries, with two tribes — the tilapiines and the haplochromines — taking up permanent residence there. Things got interesting for the haplochromines however, which went through “adaptive radiation” and today comprise around 1,000 species, which is about as many as live in the whole of the North Atlantic! This was great news for human populations who could then fish the lake for food, scientists who could study evolution — and us fishkeepers, who get to marvel over Malawi’s bountiful beauty in our home aquariums.
So think freshwater reef fish and you would be about right, as the colourful yellow and blue mbuna we keep bask in the clear blue, sunlit waters and live in and around the rocky outcrops. Cichlid paradise!
Tropheops chilumba female, mouthbrooding — juveniles and females are all yellow in colour. males are blue. Image by Kevin Bauman. This is the male Tropheops chilumba . Image by Kevin Bauman.
But the fascination doesn’t stop there, as the mbuna deliver a double whammy of appeal by way of how they breed. All the mbuna, and all the other haplochromines in Lake Malawi are maternal mouthbrooders, meaning that they lay eggs, which are then taken into the female’s mouth where they are incubated, hatched, and then finally spat out as fully formed fry.
This paid dividends for the early cichlid colonisers of the lake bed as even breeding females were not tied down to any one small patch for a month at a time and instead could be upwardly mobile, go forth and colonise. The uninitiated wouldn’t know that a female was with eggs or fry at all, and the males didn’t have to turn into giants who would then have to defend the fry against all comers, whether fish, bird or reptile.
Keep mature males and females together in the home aquarium and they will breed. And for many mbuna keepers the progeny can provide a useful supplemental revenue stream.
Orange blotch (OB) zebras — a calico shubunkin-like, naturally occurring colour.
Keeping them at home
The good news about mbuna is that although there are so many species, they can all be kept in exactly the same way, eat exactly the same food, and once you have conquered keeping them for the first time you can pretty much keep any of them, as long as you observe the fundamentals.
Coming from such a large lake, the mbuna are used to clean, clear water, which is free of pollutants and rich in oxygen. In the aquarium this means they need lots of mechanical and biological filtration, plenty of water changes to keep nitrate at low levels and extra aeration by way of an airstone or Venturi outlet on a filter.
Next is the chemistry of the water. All that tectonic plate activity under the lake has meant that Malawi is very rich in minerals, which give it a high pH, KH (carbonate hardness,) and GH (general hardness). Those with scaled-up kettles and hard tapwater will do really well with mbuna — these aren’t fish for soft, acidic water conditions. So it’s no to reverse osmosis water without adequate amounts of Malawi cichlid salts first being added, and decor should include calcareous, lime-based decor or filter media to keep those minerals high and pH, KH and GH buffered.
Labidochromis caeruleus yellow — bright yellow males, females and fry. Image by MP & C Piednoir, Aquapress.com.
In the wild mbuna rarely top 7.5–10cm/3–4in total length but fed rich foods in the aquarium they can reach 12.5–15cm/5–6in. They are aggressive and territorial and you need to keep lots of them, so a large tank is a must.
To start right with mbuna a 120cm/4ft tank or larger is best. Yes, breeders and the shops keep them in much smaller set-ups but this ability comes with experience, and it’s far from ideal. Some species are classed more as dwarf mbuna, and these might do well in a tank of 90–100cm/36–40in, but even then a taller, wider tank with a volume upwards of 180 l/40 gal is best.
When creating a home for mbuna, try to replicate the lake environment — deep and wide. A 120 x 60 x 60cm/48 x 24 x 24in tank will be much more conducive to the lake effect than a 120 x 30 x 30cm/48 x 12 x 12in aquarium, which holds far less water and is much better suited to replicating a small, shallow stream.
Male Metriaclima zebra and similar species display vertical barring which give the zebra complex its name. Image by AquariumPhoto.dk
Getting started with mbuna can be somewhat of a trap for the uninitiated, as many of the most widely available species are the least suitable for the novice.
Melanochromis auratus is probably the most widely available, with juveniles displaying attractive humbug patterning. It must be said that this is a very hardy, durable species — but it is also one of the most aggressive and will quickly dominate, then terrorise a new, sparsely populated tank. Males and females become duller and more dirtier-marked too, losing much of the bright striping.
A first foray into blue fish can also be folly, with Pseudotropheus socolofi being an attractive powder blue colour, but becoming aggressive and quite large with age, while Metriaclima lombardoi starts life with blue vertical banding on both sexes, the males developing a lovely bronzy yellow as they mature — along with a foul temper! Add a few unidentified hybrids and you can soon end up with an aggressive, nasty set-up, which is anything but relaxing to watch.
Melanochromis cyaneorhabdos. Image by MP & C Piednoir, Aquapress.com.
Seek out a cichlid specialist who will have more species and better labelling. There you will be able to buy bright yellow but mild-tempered Labidochromis caeruleus and dark blue but small in size and temper, Melanochromis cyaneorhabdos. You can also add a group of lilac-coloured Pseudotropheus acei — the least mbuna-like mbuna of all, being generally placid. Tropheops are underrated, subtly coloured and generally well behaved mbuna, which inhabit the shallows and graze algae. Some are quite collectable and any shop holding several species such as T. chilumba, macropthalmus, microstoma and sp. ‘red cheek’ are definitely worth their cichlid salt.
And if you want to break up the bright blues and yellows, how about a bit of brown? Look out for the subtle beauty of Pseudotropheus elongatus ‘chailosi’ or Cynotilapia sp. ‘Lion’.
Large aggressive species
These fish are best avoided by the novice mbuna keeper:
Pseudotropheus perspicax. Image by Kevin Bauman.
Smaller, less aggressive species
Try these instead:
A pair of Pseudotropheus saulosi — the female is in the foreground. Image by Kevin Bauman.
Male and female mbuna don’t form mated pairs, and that does mean that male mbuna can be troublesome. To put it simply, every male mbuna wants nothing more than to be the only male haplochromine in the whole of Lake Malawi — or better still, the whole of the world.
Males want to adorn themselves in the brightest colours and live over the best real estate, and their idea of heaven is to be visited every ten minutes of every day by a female looking for a casual fling and who then disappears, never to be seen again!
Hell for a male mbuna is to be surrounded by other males — other better looking, more masculine males — who then eat their food, take up residence in their space and worst of all, take all their women. This results in a typical male response — fighting — and females who don’t know when to leave will get battered, too. If you’re 7.5cm/3in long and aquatic, never get within a few metres of a male mbuna with a rage on. It will hurt!
But of course the problem here is that most of our tanks are only a metre long — maybe a metre and half at best — so with what we now know about mbuna psychology, we can see that we have an anger management problem that needs to be addressed. Rival males and non-sexual females will always be in the vicinity of dominant, sexually charged males, so it’s how we deal with it which will make or break your mbuna “community”.
The first thing to consider is decor. In Malawi the rocks where mbuna are found would need moving with a JCB, but we can use lots of smaller rocks, say 15cm/6in across, in piles in the aquarium. A rock gives a male something to call his own, somewhere to feed and breed — and if you use limestone rock it will even buffer your water and help to make it hard.
Pile the rocks together and females, fry and subdominant males can take shelter in the crevices and get out of the line of sight of the aggressive male. He won’t attack them if he doesn’t know they are there.
Next, pile rocks high to further obscure the line of sight across the aquarium. Make a visual barrier and two males will separate and coexist, each defending his own tiny territory. Add lots and lots of rocks and you can keep even more males in this way.
The next line of defence is to overstock. You have lots of filtration and lots of aeration, so go wild (filter bacteria levels permitting), and quickly build up a high number of similarly sized, similarly aged (ideally young, sub 5cm/2in fish). Twenty individuals should be seen as an absolute minimum, but 30 or 40 is even better. Grow them up in a crowded situation where they all know one other and anger can be managed. Outnumber a male of each species by at least two females, so that one poor female doesn’t get singled out and harassed. Or don’t have any females at all — but you’ll miss out on the joys of breeding.
Like a cockerel with a group of hens, the one thing that’s really going to wind up your male is another male of his own size and kind. He’ll fight to the death to protect what is his, so a newly introduced, disorientated male will always come off worst. Passing on one’s bloodline overpowers every other emotion or driver in nature.
Overstock and the aggressive male can’t spend too long away from his rock chasing other fish, as another fish could take up residence while he is away (or so he thinks). And that’s how Malawi mbuna tanks work.
The underslung mouths of Labeotropheus are perfect for feeding on algae growths. Image by Ad Konings.
Feed with care
In nature, mbuna feed on aufwuchs (a German word, meaning surface growth). This growth on the rocks consists of short strands of algae, biofilms and the tiny critters living within it. At certain times of year mbuna will also graze on zooplankton blooms higher up in the water, and massive scale midge hatches which rise up hundreds of metres above the lake like huge plumes of smoke as they hatch and mate.
For the Malawi cichlid geeks it’s the subtle specialisation of the 1,000 species when times are tough and food lean, which is so fascinating. Like zebra and wildebeest on the savannah, which coexist by each eating different lengths of grasses, the mbuna do so by eating different lengths of aufwuchs, and grazing it in different ways. The underslung mouths of the Labeotropheus allow those fish to access and rip off the best algae growths in choppy water with very little levering, keeping their bodies flat against the rocks as they do so. But the more insectivorous Labidochromis have to turn their bodies head first, at 90° to a flat surface, and then expend more energy ripping at the algae.
So, in the lean times, each species uses its specialisation, be it for eating short algae, long algae, invertebrates, insect larvae, eggs, scales or even fry — that’s why there are so many different species in Lake Malawi rather than millions of individuals of just one or two species.
In the aquarium, these specialisations are virtually never called upon, so mbuna grow big and fat on rich diets and regular feeds. This gives rise to so-called “Malawi bloat”, although many other underlying factors probably also contribute to the disease. In a mbuna with bloat, the neck and stomach become swollen and firm to the touch; the eyes pop slightly. It’s almost always fatal.
Popular advice is to avoid rich foods aimed at South American carnivorous cichlids and instead offer mbuna specific diets, which contain lots of algae, vegetable matter, and low animal protein. Frozen bloodworm is also attributed to causing bloat, although it is actually very low in protein and instead high in chitin, and mostly water.
Leave off feeding for one day a week and your mbuna will take to the rocks, cleaning up algae and clearing out their systems.
Mbuna fry are large by fish standards. Image by MP & C Piednoir, Aquapress.com.
8 essentials for success with mbuna
- Hard, alkaline water — pH upwards of 7.5; temperature 24–26°C/75–79°F.
- Well-filtered water — zero ammonia and nitrite; nitrate should be below 40ppm.
- Well-oxygenated water — add extra aeration with an airstone or Venturi.
- A large tank — 180 l/40 gal minimum, but ideally 240 l/53 gal or more.
- Lime based decor — to aid pH buffering.
- Rocks — provide lots of them to offer territories and hiding places.
- Overcrowding — 20-plus fish in every community.
- The right food — offer an algae-based diet aimed at herbivores.
Don’t let them hybridise!
Mbuna will hybridise in the aquarium, and for the sake of other mbuna buyers, this should not be encouraged. Don’t keep females without a male of their own species in the community and if fry are suspected to be of hybrid origin, don’t spread them in the hobby. Although exciting to some, a new species won’t be created in this way. Instead, that world record breaking cichlid diversity will be watered down and diminished — and those unique colours, patterns and specialisations will disappear.