Cichlid Room Companion


Maintaining and Breeding in a Typical Mbuna Fashion

By , 2000. printer
Pam Chin, 2002

Classification: Captive maintenance, Lake Malawi.

" A detailed guide about the successful keeping and breeding of the wonderful rock dwelling colorful mbuna cichlids from Lake Malawi in east Africa, by one of the foremost worldwide experts in them "

Mbuna, Melanochromis johanni in Lake Malawi, by Ad Konings

Mbuna!! You remember them, they were probably your first African Cichlids. Remember why??? I know why I still like to keep and breed Mbuna even, after working with Africans for over 10 years, I refuse to give up on these wonderful rock dwellers from Lake Malawi. Why should you try mbuna for the first time, or even try them for the second time?? Brilliant color, action, simple maintenance and easy to breed!! Read on!! This is not a "typical" Mbuna article!

In a nut shell, Mbuna are the rock dwelling fish from Lake Malawi, they live among the rock piles, each in there own self sustaining community. A few yards away lay another pile of rocks with its own community. The fish all looking much the same, the only difference may be the color. They are the opposite of Utaka, the open water fish (Haplochromis) of Lake Malawi. Both names, Mbuna and Utaka were given to the fish by the natives. But, remember there are exceptions to every rule!! There are Mbuna who spend more time in the shallow sandy shores, and there are species that prefer to dwell in shells rather than the rocks.

There is nothing like the sight of Mbuna community tank, to push you off the deep end! All it takes is a 55 gallon tank or larger, with any type of rockwork up the backside. You can watch the fish for hours, as they interact with each other showing their brilliant colors. The constant activity in the tank will give you years of enjoyment. And these are the main reasons you want to keep fish; color and action!.

I don't think any one really knows how many different types of Mbuna there are in Lake Malawi. Just in the last few years alone, there have been many new color morphs and species introduced to us. The "typical" Mbuna being Pseudotropheus, Melanochromis, Labeotropheus, and Labidochromis. However, these fish are far from "typical", each has found it's own niche in the bio system of Lake Malawi. Each part of the Lake has evolved its own unique color morph. Another reason why Mbuna can be so exciting. You don't like that color, stick around, at the current rate of new color morphs being discovered, I am sure you will find one to your liking! First lets talk about the "typical" Mbuna that are available to you.

Male at Chia A male of Metriaclima cyneusmarginatum near Chia, Lake Malawi [Malawi]. Photo by Ad Konings. determiner Ad Konings

Pseudotropheus / Metriaclima

These two genera are probably the broadest the category of Mbuna. Every rock pile in Lake Malawi seems to have a group of Pseudotropheus or Metrialima dwelling in it! There is every color imaginable. I couldn't begin to explain the differences between the species or name all of the color morphs in this century! Metrialima zebra is the King of the color morphs, and P. tropheops can't be far behind. There are so many new species and or color morphs, their locale has become part of their name. This is why you see P. elongatus, Mbenji Island, or Likoma Island. The fish seem to have the same body type, finnage, eyes, heads, etc., but each have their own unique color. They range in size as adults from 6 cm to 14 cm, depending on the species. Some are sexually dimorphic, and some are not. They feed on and in the algae beds growing on the rocks, picking, scraping and cleaning, ingesting crustaceans, bugs, and algae. They do not venture far from their pile of rocks, their territory. Yes, they do have teeth that help them eat by scraping and also trash their tank mates. Pseudotropheus can be a bit fiesty! However when kept with their own type, there is a lot of chasing but not much damage is done.

Male in lake Malawi A male of Labeotropheus fuelleborni in Lake Malawi. Photo by David Tarragó. determiner Patrick Tawil


This is a little easier, with two species; L. fuelleborni and L. trewavasae. They are basically like Pseudotropheus (I know the taxonomists are going to love this!) except they have a hooked nose. They also come in a wide variety of color morphs. L. fuelleborni "typically" is the larger of the two, its body is much thicker and length can be up to 18 cm. Trewavasae is "typically" more petite, elongated and smaller and length can be up to 14 cm. This is the basis for distinguishing their differences, however, many of the taxonomist agree that they are very closely related and it may be impossible to correctly tell them apart. Their cute noses have evolved from their eating habits, they love those carpets of algae and leave behind scrape marks. The "typical" color morph is a blue male with an orange (O) or orange blotched (OB) female. The famous "Marmalade Cat" is a male OB, which is rarely seen in the Lake itself.

Male at Nakantenga Island A male of Melanochromis auratus at Nakantenga Bay, Lake Malawi [Malawi]. Photo by Ad Konings. determiner Patrick Tawil


Melanochromis auratus and M. johanni probably the lead the pack as the most readily available to hobbyist. Everyone has had at least one male auratus ("typically" named "Rambo") dominate your mbuna tank at one time or another! Pound for pound you won't find a more aggressive fish. Just remember he is defending his territory, it is his nature to kill all intruders. Melanochromis is a predatory mbuna and a bit more primitive than the others, they are more of an opportunistic feeder and do not live by algae alone! In fact Melanochromis lepidophage is a scale eater, but ironically does not attack Mbuna. With a "typical" territory of 3 meters it is no wonder that an auratus in full breeding colors will not tolerate any males of any species in his spawning grounds. Many Melanochromis are sexually dimorphic when reaching adult hood. Johanni for example are are all born a beautiful bright yellow, exact minatures of the females, when the male becomes dominate it turns so blue it is nearly black. Sub dominate males remain yellow. In auratus the fry and females are a striking black and white striped with an intense yellow hue, in contrast the dominate males turn their pattern into gold and white stripes with a black body.

Male in the aquarium A male of Labidochromis sp. 'perlmutt' in the aquarium of Roger Häggström [Sweden]. Photo by Roger Häggström. determiner Patrick Tawil


Labidochromis species have been available in the hobby for years but until the bright yellow, Labidochromis caeruleus, "Lions Cove Yellow" showed up a few years ago, not too many were familiar with this genus. Now it is the most sought after Mbuna and their prices reflect it. The white or cream colored morph of caeruleus is also gaining popularity, both have the sub marginal black stripe in their dorsal which has become their trade mark. Labidochromis have a more pointed head and mouth than do their counterparts, it too has evolved from specialized feeding habits. They also graze on the algae beds and feast on the many crustaceans available as well as snails. Labidochromis freibergi, one of my personal favorites, sports black vertical stripes and intense blue throughout the body.


You can breed Mbuna one on one, and in a community tank. However, I discourage this for several reasons:

  1. Mbuna will cross breed. This defeats the whole purpose of successful breeding. It is OUR responsibility to see that this never happens. If you cross the color morphs or the species you have gained nothing. You have a hybrid which is going to be of no use to our hobby. This is already happening and you can see it at your local store in a tank labeled: Mixed Africans. How long will Mbuna continue to be exported from Lake Malawi? With the unstable governments and the Southern part of the Lake now a National Park, compounded with the legislation here in our own country regarding the importation of fish it looks tentative. When you buy Mbuna to breed demand to know what species it is, and if your not familiar with it, research it. The quality of books available on Mbuna and Lake Malawi is excellent.

  2. Mbuna are most successfully bred "harem" style. One male to many females. When you purchase your future breeding stock it is best to buy fry and raise them up. Buying a minimum of 6 will hopefully insure you get a mix of males and females. I like to buy in lots of 12, I know I will loose a couple before they reach breeding size and the secret is the more females you can get the more fry you can produce. You can raise your fry in a community tank, and in fact that is probably the best but as they reach sexual maturity it is time to house the group by themselves.

  3. When you do have a spawn in a community tank, retrieving the fry can be quite an ordeal. Completely dismantling a tank to catch a holding female is alot of work. Not to mention how traumatic it must be for her to be chased around a 100 gallon tank with a mouthful of eggs. When you have a breeding group in a tank by themselves, it is much easier to observe the females and see who is holding. Then they can easily be removed to a female holding tank, or stripped. All of this is much easier on you and the fish!

  4. Aggression is less when each species is housed by themselves. When you have three or four different species trying to spawn in a community tank, you are going to loose fish. In the wild, the strongest survive and try to spawn with as many females that he possible can in his prime condition. It is just natural that they want to eliminate any and all other males in their territory. When bred one on one, much of the aggression is taken out on the female, but in a breeding group, this doesn't happen, he is too busy trying to multiply with all the females.


The larger the tank the larger your breeding group can be. I have some 60 gallon breeding flats; 4' X 2' X 1' this has proved to be a good size. With plenty of surface area you can crowd up your fish a bit more, and increase the female to male ratio. During the Summer months you can even place your breeding group in the shallow wading pools that you can buy at K-Mart, Target etc. Smaller groups can be kept in smaller tanks 20 or 30 gallons but keep an eye on them, they really need more room.

Any type of filtration will work; undergravel, sponge, box filters, etc. Just remember Mbuna thrive on clean water, change your water often and keep an eye on ammonia levels, they just won't tolerate high ammonia. They can usually take massive water changes which sometimes will trigger spawning. If your mbuna look listless, or slow, it is time to do a water change and you will be amazed at how they appreciate it and become more active and more colorful. I prefer to use bare bottom tanks with sponge filters. Although they lack, the beauty of aquascaping they are much, much easier to keep clean. I don't like to use gravel because of the fear the female will pick it up with the eggs and eventually damaging them. The other reason to forego the gravel is because Mbuna love to dig. This digging not only keeps your Undergravel filter from not working properly, but they are digging up all sorts of unhealthy dirt into the tank.

Mbuna do not require as high of a temperature as other tropical fish. Remember the lake is 72 - 74 degrees all year long. So it is not necessary to keep your tank at 80 degrees. In the summer you may not want to heat your tank at all. I am heating the room, rather than heating each tank individually. I have been amazed at the low temperatures these fish can be maintained, however, at lower temps spawning ceases.

Mbuna require a high pH to get the maximum level of spawning. They will breed at lower pH levels, but they will produce better if maintained in water of at least 8.5 or higher pH. If your water is not liquid cement, then try experimenting with some of the commercially prepared water conditioners, or make your own, using rock salt, baking soda, soda ash and Epsom salts. Alot of people laugh this off, but it is a serious factor in becoming a successful Mbuna breeder! Not only does it increase their spawning, but also their color and activity.

Your breeding group of Mbuna, still need some type of cover, they like to have their own caves, and females not ready to spawn or who are holding need places to hide. This can be simulated many ways, but the easiest seem to be PVC pipe. You can also use rocks or flower pots, but PCV pipe is easy to work with. Readily available at any hardware store, you can buy a variety of sizes, cut it to any length, and silicone it together, making your own "Cichlid Condo's". When you want to catch a holding female, it can be removed easily. Often the females hide inside the pipe and you can just empty it into the net.


The books say that some Mbuna are herbivorous and some are omnivorous, and it does appear that in the Lake they do eat more than just algae, but in the aquarium to much protein or meat can mean the deadly "Malawian Bloat". There are many theories of why this is so, the best I have heard deals with just plain over feeding. A quick look at the foods that are available for just cichlids is overwhelming. It is no wonder that our Mbuna are on the obese side. Not only are these chubby fish candidates for "Bloat" but also this excess weight can interfere with reproduction. Mbuna will eat anything offered, and they are excellent beggars, everytime you walk by the tank they think it is time to eat. I have been most successful with Mbuna by feeding a condition flake, all green flake or Spirulina flake. Believe me, run ins with "Bloat" have been fewer and far between when feeding only veggies. I also like to feed romaine lettuce and duck weed. In addition I want a good growth of algae growing on the sides of the tanks. Just leave the light on for a week or so to get a good crop going.


Once your group is about 10 - 12 months old you will be able to tell who the dominate male is. You also have a pretty good idea of who the sub dominate males are. Basically all Mbuna spawn the same way, the only difference is where the eggs are fertilized, it will be either at the spawning site or in the females mouth. This leads us to the question of "egg spots" or "egg dummies" and what part do they have in the spawning? Many believe this is the only way to sex Mbuna. Some believe it has nothing to do with it, and that they are just left over from years of evolving. I like to take the middle of the road. I don't believe you can sex a fish on egg spots alone, females may also have egg spots. I do think the quality, shape, and color of the egg spots may help you sex a fish, along with the size, color, and finnage of the fish. Using the common cichlid clues; pointed fins vs. blunt fins, color vs. color, size and behavior you can eliminate the obvious and be able to sex the fish. Some believe the "egg spots" are to encourage the female to mouth the anal fin of the male, but since many Mbuna are known to fertilize the eggs out side the females mouth, this theory doesn't work all the time. Some believe that they are to guide the female to the spawning site.

Once your group has reached maturity, it is only a matter of time before your start getting fry. The Male will select a spawning site, it could be inside a piece of PVC or on the bare bottom. He will flirt with all the females until one responds and follows him down to his nest or cave. The female deposits them in the immediate area, and the male follows fertilizing the eggs. The female returns and picks up the eggs holding them in her buccal cavity, and also deposits more eggs. This goes on until they are finished, usually a hour or so. The female retreats to find a place to hide out while she begins to hatch her brood. The male starts looking for the next available female.

I like to remove the female and place her in a holding tank by herself or with other holding females. I think removing the female reduces her stress and that she is more apt to hold. The breeding females learn fast, and after they have spawned a few times, it is like they know they are going to be removed and placed in the holding tank. They like it there, no obnoxious male to deal with, no tempting food. They move less, therefore they don't loose as much weight and can recover more quickly then females left in the tank to fend for themselves. Soon they size of the spawns increase, and you are overwhelmed with baby mbunas!!

You can strip the females if you wish. There are many commercial egg hatchers on the market, or you can design your own. It takes a certain nack to get it down, and don't get discouraged if you loose your first couple batches. The secret is in the movement, you don't want to tumble them too hard, or you will beat the eggs to death. Just a slow gentle rotation is usually the key. I like to let the young females hold to full term a few times before starting to strip them.

Fry care

When the female releases they fry at 21 to 28 days, they are large enough to eat a finely ground green flake food. I like to feed it in combination with baby brine. Baby brine is what will bring out the color in your fry, and continue to feed it until they are well over an inch. Remember to cull your fry!! A successful breeder should also be a responsible breeder.


Don't think Mbuna are typical, today there are many different color morphs and species that are in high demand. They are easier to maintain than many Tanganyikans and are an excellent way to support your habit.

May your Mbuna never bloat!!


Chin, Pam. (September 02, 2000). "Maintaining and Breeding in a Typical Mbuna Fashion". Cichlid Room Companion. Retrieved on November 28, 2021, from: