Pam Chin, 2002
Cichlid Room Companion

Introduction To Rift Lake African Cichlids

By , 2000. image

Classification: Captive maintenance, Lake Malawi.

The Cichlids of East Africa are renowned in science for their proliferation and diversity, and in the aquarium hobby for their beauty and behavior. These cichlids come from lakes that formed when two great valleys filled with water millions of years ago. Lake Tanganyika and Malawi are not the only Rift Lakes, they also include Lake Kivu, Edward, Albert, Rudolf and a number of other relatively small lakes and ponds. However, we will concentrate on Lakes Tanganyika and Malawi. These Lakes are unique in their huge cichlid populations that are principally endemic or, in other words, are only found in their respective lakes and no where else. African Cichlids are wanted in the hobby for both their beautiful coloration and their remarkable behavior.

Lake Tanganyika was formed over 10 million years ago by earthquakes and volcanic action. It was isolated for six million years and as recently as 100,000 years ago gained its outlet to the Congo River System. Today, Lake Tanganyika is 400 miles long, has a maximum width of 50 miles and has a altitude of 2,536 feet. The lake has a surface area of 13,000 square miles. The main rivers flowing in the Lake are the Rusizi and the Malagarasi, the only current outflow is the Lukuga River. Evaporation accounts for 95% of the total water loss from the lake, the annual outflow is very small, which accounts for its high alkaline. The pH of the lake is in excess of 8.6 up to 9.3. This Lake is the deepest of the Rift Lakes and the second deepest in the world after Lake Baikal, in the Russia. Most fish are contained to 300 feet, because the water is stagnate below that point, and there is no oxygen. The temperature of the Lake hardly varies, it is 74 - 76 degrees F. year around.

Lake Malawi has the same general appearance as Lake Tanganyika. It is the ninth largest and fourth deepest lake in the world and the second deepest Rift Lake. Lake Malawi has only one deep basin, which is in the northern end of the lake. Today, Lake Malawi is 350 miles long, has a maximum width of 50 miles and a surface area of 11,600 square miles and is 1500 feet above sea level. Like Lake Tanganyika, Lake Malawi also has a high mineral-salt concentration and a high pH, 7.7-8.7. Lake Malawi has little temperature variation; the range between the surface and bottom waters is only 3 degrees, it is around 74 - 76 degrees F., year around. Both Lakes Malawi and Tanganyika are permanently stratified, meaning that there is negligible water turnover. Lake Malawi is perpetually deoxygenated at a depth greater than 1300 feet.

Setting Up And Maintaining

Generally African Rift Lake Cichlids are very hardy and will withstand a wide range of conditions and abuse! However, simulating the conditions of the Lakes is necessary if you want to spawn your fish, have them live a long life and exhibit the optimum coloration. Because of their size and territorial nature, most Rift Lake African Cichlids require medium to large aquariums.

It is important to remember that Rift Lake African Cichlids are known diggers. They will dig up any plants and will excavate down to the undergravel filter in a short time (we are talking hours!!). When you landscape and decorate your tank be sure they are not able to undermine the rocks which can either crush your prize fish or break the aquarium glass. Most put down the undergravel filter cover it with gravel, then a layer of plastic screen and then more gravel, this way they can't dig all the way down and disrupt the function of your filter. Many Rift Lake African Cichlids are rock dwellers. They not only live among the rocks for protection but also spawn on and under them and eat algae, insects, etc. that grow on the rocks.

The pH of your aquarium water is important. Hard water will help, but you can also add a buffer such as dolomite or oyster shell with your gravel to help maintain your pH. Studies have shown that as the pH falls below 8, the fish tend to become more susceptible to disease, lose their coloration and cease to breed.

Lighting is another important consideration when setting up an African Cichlid tank. There are two routes that you can take; you can inhibit the growth of algae or promote it. I think you should promote it!! Most of the African cichlids enjoy scraping the algae off the rocks, as that is their natural source of nutrition when in the Lakes. The rocks in Lakes Malawi and Tanganyika are covered with a thick mat of algae. Most of the cichlids within these Lakes pick and scrape at this mat for algae, insects and crustaceans living within.

Feedings should be made often and in small amounts. Your cichlids should be fed enough so that they do not have to compete for food. You will find that these fish will take almost any food offered, regardless of their habits in the wild. It is up to the aquarist to insure that the fishes in your tank get the proper nutrition. Because of the variety of fish there is also a variety of diets! Some fish are vegetarian and others are meat eaters. Remember the meat eaters need protein, and many of the vegetarians CAN NOT digest meat or high protein food properly and can cause the dreaded "Malawian Bloat".

The best way to start is by setting up a community tank. Selecting compatible fish from one Lake and housing them in one tank. There is nothing more enjoyable than a community tank filled with these Cichlids to the brim. Always buy at least six of each species, many of these fish are schooling types, and do much better in groups, than individuals. I also recommend buying fry rather than adults, when they all grow up together, your fish will tolerate each other better.


One of the most exciting aspects of keeping African Rift Lake Cichlids is spawning them. Under the right conditions, many of these fishes will readily spawn in your aquarium. Your success in spawning them hinges, however, on your ability to simulate their natural environment as closely as possible.

The pre-spawning activities of the Rift Lake Cichlids involve elaborate rituals of courtship, including recognition signs such as color exhibition. The males establish a territory and often build nest areas. These fishes have been divided in two groups; substrate spawners and mouthbrooders. Mouthbrooders incubate their fertilized eggs within their oral cavities, and substrate spawners have their fertilized eggs develop on external surfaces.

Substrate spawners such as Neolamprologus, Tilapia, Julidochromis and Telmatochromis, will lay the eggs on a rock surface, crevice or even in shells. The male will pass over them to fertilize. Generally substrate spawners will both participate in parental care.

Mouth-brooders are very abundant, such as Pseudotropheus, Melanochromis, Aulonocara and also include the many Haplochromine types; Protomelas, Copadichromis, Nimbochromis, etc. It is easier on females to breed harem style; one male to 8 -10 females. The male lures the female down into the nest he has prepared, either a clean rock or a pit in the gravel he has dug up. The female then lays her eggs on the substrate medium, the male follows fertilizing, then the female returns and takes them up in her mouth. Several eggs are laid at a time and then retrieved in the buccal cavity. This is done many times over until all the eggs are laid.

Mouth-brooders lay far fewer eggs than substrate spawners because of the size of the mouth compared to a limitless substrate space. However, for some reason the Mouth-brooders eggs are usually much larger than the substrate spawners. A mouth-brooder will keep the eggs in her mouth until they are completely developed into fry. The female then spits the fry into the rocks where they fend for themselves. There is no parental care, the male is only interested in spawning, and after the act he moves on to find another female. This is one reason why some mouth-brooders are more expensive fish because the size of spawns are much smaller.


There are numerous color morphs in each genus, and although some are more closely related than others, many have not been formally described, and it remains to be determined whether they are different only in their coloration or actually a separate species. These different color morphs are usually named after the place they were first collected. These locations are usually called out in their name; Lions Cove, Likoma Island, Otter Point, Nkhata Bay, etc. It is important that the color morphs and or different strains be kept separate and never crossed. It is our responsibility as hobbyists to insure that all hybrids are destroyed, and that clean strains be available to all future hobbyists. It is very possible that in our own lifetime we may not be able to have access to fish direct from the Lakes. Be it our own government banning importation of non-indigenous species, or changes in the fragile governments among the many countries that border these Lakes.

Lake Malawi

Male at Mphanga Rocks A male of Aulonocara stuartgranti at Mphanga Rocks, Lake Malawi [Malawi]. Photo by Ad Konings. (2005-10-11). determiner Ad Konings

Aulonocara - Commonly referred to as the Peacock. It is a relatively peaceful cichlid from Lake Malawi. Although the males are territorial in nature, the peacock will usually just "Ruffle his feathers" and display it's beautiful coloration rather than inflict serious injury on other fishes. This species can grow up to approximately 6 inches. When the males matures they show their wonderful and vivid colors while the females remain "Battle Ship Gray". Remember don't mix two different species together ever, you will never be able to tell the females apart, and the males can be tough to tell apart also.

Male in the aquarium Metriaclima pulpican in the beautiful 2000 liters Malawian aquarium of Giorgio Melandri in Faenza, Italy. Photo by Juan Miguel Artigas Azas. determiner Patrick Tawil

Cynotilapia Sp. - Commonly referred to as the Clown Afra. They are found through out Lake Malawi, and most recently, new species have been collected on the Tanzanian Coast. It is sometimes incorrectly called a dwarf zebra, because they are usually around 3 - 4 inches. The male "Cyno's" usually have blue coloration with six to eight dark vertical bars along the body. The fish can change its color shade, usually depending upon it's temperament. Females are duller than the males, but can still have fairly good color. They are a maternal mouthbrooder. Like most other Malawian Mbuna, the female lays her eggs on an open hard substrate and then collects them in her mouth. Fertilization can take place when the female mouths the male's genital papilla.

Male in the aquarium A male of Dimidiochromis compressiceps in the aquarium. Photo by Ad Konings. determiner Ad Konings

Dimidochromis compressiceps ­ Formerly Haplochromis, it is commonly referred to as the Malawian eye-biter, a predator from Lake Malawi with the unusual reputation of biting out the eyes of it's victims. Believe me, that is not all he is going to bite if he gets a chance!! The name is derived from its compressed body. This fish grows over 12" and has an over all silvery coloration and two dark bands along its flank and back. When mature and in breeding color, males gain a metallic blue and show red and green iridescence. The females remain "Battle Ship Gray". This fish is a maternal mouthbrooder. I consider this fish a "Cruiser" and definitely an open water fish. It may be a bit aggressive for your first community tank, but in a larger aquarium where plenty of cover is provided for other tank mates, it is a beautiful specimen.

Male in the aquarium A male of Cyrtocara moorii in the aquarium, as it appears in the book "Malawi Cichlids In Their Natural Habitat, Second Edition", republished here by cortesy of ad Konings. Photo by Ad Konings. determiner Ad Konings

Cyrtocara moorii - Formerly Haplochromis, it is commonly referred to as the Blue Dolphin. They are a relatively peaceful cichlid from Lake Malawi. It has an overall blue coloration, and black markings are found on certain forms depending upon their location of capture. It grows up to 9 inches. The males usually have a more intense coloration than the females, they are larger and have a more pronounce hump on their heads. Because of its passiveness and beautiful cobalt blue coloration, C. moorii commands a higher price. This fish is a maternal mouthbrooder and an open water fish.

Melanochromis auratus - Commonly referred to as the Malawi Golden Cichlid. They are very territorial and aggressive fish from Lake Malawi. This species is born with a bright gold yellow color with black horizontal stripes. As the fish get older, the males change color and become almost reverse of the females. They turn black with gold stripes. They are sexually dimorphic, which means when they are mature, the males are a different color from the females. This fish grows to over 4 inches, with the males being slightly larger than the females. In the wild they feed on algae and the insects and crustaceans that live within the algae. Melanochromis species are the most aggressive of all the Mbuna, and although they are primarily a vegetarian, they are known as an opportunistic feeder. This species is a maternal mouthbrooder.

Pseudotropheus sp. - This is a large family of fish, and the most common species is, Pseudotropheus zebra. There are over a dozen color varieties of zebra's alone. As collecting is performed around the Lake, many new color varieties have been and are being found. It should be given plenty of room in which to move around and establish its own territory. It grows to over 4 inches, it is a vegetarian, a mouthbrooder and a rock dweller. An excellent choice to begin with. There are literally scores of other Pseudotropheus species, they include tropheops, elongatus, demasoni, etc., grab a book and you will surely find a species that catches your eye.

Labidochromis sp. - Recently "Labido's" have become increasingly popular with the hobbyists. They 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. The most popular is Labidochromis caeruleus, "Lions Cove Yellow", sometimes called Electric Yellow, it will be a great addition to your community tank.

Labeotropheus sp. - There are two species; fuelleborni and trewavasae. Although they look similar to Pseudotropheus, they are a not as aggressive, and have a wonderful hooked nose. They also come in a wide variety of color morphs. Fuelleborni typically is the larger of the two, it's body is much thicker and length can be up to 5 inches. Trewavasae is typically more petite, elongated and smaller in length. It is agreed by most that they are very closely related.

Lake Tanganyika

Male in the aquarium A male of Cyphotilapia frontosa in the aquarium of Kurt Zadnik; Ohio [USA]. Photo by Kurt Zadnik. determiner Ad Konings

Cyphotilapia frontosa - Commonly referred to as a frontosa, a deep water Tanganyikan cichlid with a very peaceful nature. This fish has been known to grow to over 12 inches, this is a blue fish with five to seven black bands on its head and body. There are several different varieties available, and the blue can be more intense in some than others. Always make sure your "fronts" have the same amount of stripes, you don't want to cross a five stripe to a seven stripe, as well as keeping the different color varieties separate also. The males develop a large hump on the head; this hump grows with age. It has become a very desirable aquarium fish because of its beauty and grace, in spite of its large size. C. frontosa is widely distributed throughout Lake Tanganyika, it is found at depths that make its capture difficult. This species is a maternal Mouthbrooder.

Blue cover Adult of Symphysodon aequifasciatus "Blue Cover" in the aquarium of Ray McCaleb, this magnificent fish won first of its class in the 2002 american Cichlid association convention in atlanta. The "Blue Cover" discus is an improved version of the "Blue Diamond" developed by Chung Wai Sheing in Hong Kong, this fish was brought to america by Ken Davis from atlanta. Photo by Juan Miguel Artigas Azas.

Neolamprologus pulcher - Commonly called the Princess of Burundi, this Tanganyikan cichlid is a favorite for old and new cichlid lovers!. The fish is a tan-rust color with long delicate fins that give it an unusual grace. Adults grow to about 4 inches, and it is fairly easy to sex when they are mature. In recent years there are several different varieties that are closely related. One of the most beautiful is Neolamprologus sp. "Daffodil", it sports a beautiful yellow hue, that has become very popular. This fish is naturally an omnivore and will eat a variety of fish foods. This species is a substrate spawner that places its eggs in narrow crannies and rock caves. It is often difficult to detect a spawning, as the fish are very secretive. After full development, the fry may not emerge from the rocks for several weeks. They are great parents and will have subsequent spawns.

Male in the aquarium A male of Altolamprologus compressiceps in the aquarium of Don Danko, Cleveland, Ohio. Photo by Don Danko. determiner Patrick Tawil

Altolamprologus compressiceps - Commonly called the compressed cichlid, not to be confused with Dimidiochromis compressiceps from Lake Malawi. You can tell by the size of it's mouth that it is a predator, it hides between the rocks, and darts out to catch its prey. However, they do quite well in the aquarium, as long as they are not over crowded. It will eat small aquarium fishes or fry. There are several different color morphs: Red, Yellow, Brown. It has a flat compressed body and head, very deep body and a large mouth. Adult males grow to 4+ inches, females are much smaller This species is a substrate spawner, and a close relative is Altolamprologus calvus.

Male in the aquarium Male Neolamprologus leleupi longior in the aquarium of Don Danko [USA]. Photo by Don Danko. determiner Wolfgang Staeck

Neolamprologus leleupi longior - Commonly called the lemon cichlid, it attains a size of 4+ inches in males, females are smaller. There can be no doubt that this is one of the most popular African Cichlids. It is found throughout Lake Tanganyika. It is fairly aggressive and highly territorial especially when it is breeding. The males will be brutal to the females after spawning. It is any hobbyist dream to breed this intense yellow fish, it is a substrate spawner and normally has a large spawns, 250 fry is common. It prefers to hang out in the rocks. It primarily eats invertebrates in the wild, and loves brine shrimp. Diet is an important factor in keeping their color true, without brine shrimp, they will turn black and ugly!

Julidochromis - The five species known so far are all native to Lake Tanganyika. However, several different varieties occur in each species, at different locations in the Lake. It is imperative that these different varieties and or strains are not crossed. Please keep them separate when breeding. Julidochromis marlieri, has a dark black brown body with white blotches. It has more of a distinct pattern that the transcriptus. Julidochromis transcriptus, has more of a splotched black pattern with a white belly. Julidochromis regani, has four horizontal bands, the lower most at the insertion of the pectoral fins. Julidochromis ornatus, have three horizontal bands and a large round black spot at the base of the caudal fin. A good strain will have a yellow belly and distinct stripes. Julidochromis dickfeldi, has three horizontal bands on the body, no spot on the caudal base.

They are commonly called "Julies" they vary is sizes, but usually not over 4 inches or so. The one requirement, however, is plenty of caves to hide in. This means there simply cannot be enough rock or flower pot structures in the tank. They are a substrate spawners and deposit their grayish green eggs in rock crevices or at the roof of caves. They are usually good parents, and will spawn again without removing the fry. A good growth of algae, makes happy "Julies"!!


These are just the few of the Rift Lake African Cichlids that are readily available and good to start with. Don't let the Latin names scare you off. After a little reading and as you become more familiar with the fish, the "nomenclature" sinks in!! You can not find freshwater fish that are more colorful, or easier to maintain. There are hundreds more to check out and that is why these Rift Lake Cichlids are so popular. I have been keeping them for over 12 years, and have yet to get bored. There is always a one I haven't tried, new ones are constantly being collected, and the information that is available to hobbyists is increasing everyday.

Speaking of books I can't stress the importance of reading up on any fish before you decide to bring it home. Check out the list of books below to find out more about these popular Cichlids from the African Rift Lakes.

References (5):


Chin, Pam. (Sep 02, 2000). "Introduction To Rift Lake African Cichlids". Cichlid Room Companion. Retrieved on May 24, 2024, from: