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A Beginners Guide to Keeping and Breeding Cichlids from Lake Malawi

By , 1996. printer
Eric Hanneman,

Classification: Captive maintenance, Lake Malawi.

" Fishroom talk taking place on 1996-Nov-13 "

Juanmi asks: Fist time here Eric?

Primarypredator says: No, I've been wet twice

Juanmi grins.

Primarypredator says: I popped in two hours ago in a panic, thinking I had the wrong time

Juanmi says: I want to thank you for wanting to chair this meeting Eric

Primarypredator says: My pleasure, what a treat to address the Internet.

Juanmi nods his head in understanding.

Primarypredator says: A Beginners Guide to Keeping and Breeding Cichlids from Lake Malawi

Primarypredator says: Hi. Just for the record, I have been a tropical fish hobbyist for almost 30 years, since I was in seventh grade in 1967. I recall a few goldfish passing through my hands before then, but they were kept in bowls, not aquariums. I first saw cichlids from Lake Malawi in the early seventies. Having cut my teeth on livebearers, Corydoras, bettas, convicts, and angelfish, I was not really sure what the term African cichlids meant. I guess the only familiar fish at the time was the Egyptian mouthbrooder.

Primarypredator says: The first malawi fish I saw were cobalts, zebras, and textilis. These were available in the pet department of the EJ Korvette (a precursor to KMart). Then there were orange zebras, OB you can tell, the common names were all that there were available. It wasn't until Axelrod came out with his picture books that scientific names became more common. Later, my first serious breeding efforts were with Pseudotropheus dingani, and the orange shouldered peacock. These fish are not seen as often now. Their location was turned into the Malawi underwater park, where collecting is not allowed. The explosion in available species, color forms, and fish from specific localities in the last ten years appears far from over. I will address the problem of speciation at the end of this talk.

Primarypredator says: Lake Malawi is one of the world's largest lakes, nearly 300 miles long. It was created several million years ago, as the great rift of East Africa began to tear the continent into two pieces, a process, which continues, slowly, today. Lake Malawi is often called an Inland Sea, due to its size and the fact the water is hard and alkaline. As the ancient lake grew in size, it was colonized by cichlids that lived in the lakes and rivers in the area. Some think that the most likely ancestor for all of the Malawi cichlids is Astatotilapia calliptera, which lives all around the lake in shallow water, and in all the streams that flow into the lake. It, like all other fish found in the lake, is a mouthbrooder.

Astatotilapia calliptera

Astatotilapia calliptera, Male at Thumbi East island. Photo by Ad Konings.

Primarypredator says: The most popular form of cichlid found in the lake is generally described as mbuna. These fish all pick on the algae matter, or aufwuchs, that grow on the rocks and boulders found in shallow water around the lake. Those fish do eat small invertebrates found in the algae, they are for the most part vegetarians, and have long intestines designed to extract the proteins and carbohydrates from the hard to digest algae. Just think how cows and other ungulates need several stomachs to digest grass. Mbuna do it with one stomach and a long intestine.

Primarypredator says: The mbuna include the Pseudotropheus complex, Labeotropheus , Labidochromis , Melanochromis , and Cynotilapia. These fish all feed on the algae. They differ in how the attack the rocks. The Labeotropheus sort of scrape the rocks with their flattened mouths, lying parallel to the surface. The Pseudotropheus stand more on their heads, biting off chunks. Others may use their teeth to comb the algae. However, none of these fish feed heavily on other fish.

Primarypredator says: The mbuna include the Pseudotropheus complex, Labeotropheus , Labidochromis , Melanochromis , and Cynotilapia. These fish all feed on the algae. They differ in how the attack the rocks. The Labeotropheus sort of scrape the rocks with their flattened mouths, lying parallel to the surface. The Pseudotropheus stand more on their heads, biting off chunks. Others may use their teeth to comb the algae. However, none of these fish feed heavily on other fish.

Primarypredator says: There are other types of cichlids in Lake Malawi. These include the Aulonocara , or peacocks, and the Haplochromis. The Haplochromis genus has recently been split into several new genus. I personally do not pretend to be an expert on why fish are moved from genus to genus. But the trend in ecology is to separate fish into species based on small color differences and locations. This has caused severe brain trauma for myself, who invested many hours pouring over those old Axelrod books learning the "wrong" names. I guess you can tell how long someone has been in the hobby by how ancient the name is that they use for certain fish.

Primarypredator says: Fortunately for me, the maintenance requirements for these colorful cichlids have not changed with the ascension of the splitters over the lumpers. Mbuna are basically gregarious fish, living in large mixed species flocks wherever they can find a rock to hide under. For this reason alone, they do better when crowded together. All cichlids are basically territorial, especially when breeding. Since breeding behavior is one of the most interesting aspects of cichlid keeping, I recommend a 55 gallon (200 liter) tank as the minimal size. Though smaller tanks, like 35 gallon (140 liter) are possible, the smaller tanks mean less fish can be accommodated, and fewer fish mean more fights among the fish that are present.

Primarypredator says: A 55 gallon tank will hold 4 or 5 trios or small groups of mbuna, and a group of peacocks or small haplochromines. That is still quite a crowd. For filtering a tank like that, I recommend a couple of large air driven sponge filters, and an outside power filter. I think canisters are quieter, but hang on the tank filters are easier to maintain. I drain about 50 percent of the water out every two weeks or so, then I rinse my sponge filters in a five gallon bucket of old tank water. I do not like to put them under the tap, since chorine in the tap water can kill the beneficial bacteria in the sponges.

Primarypredator says: A hose connected to the sink serves to fill the tank back up. Using PVC and a valve, I have constructed a U-shaped piece of pipe which hangs over the lip of the tank, and then splits into an upside down T, which has a bunch of holes drilled into it so the water flow does not disrupt the gravel or rockwork. Adjusted for temperature, the chlorine/chloramine removing chemicals are added as well as any salt desired.

Primarypredator says: The water at home is soft and neutral, so I add salts for the rift lake cichlids. Using the Brichard book's numbers for the amounts of various salts found in Lake Tanganyika, I devised a simple and cheap substitute. Epsom salts (magnesium sulfate) is used to harden the water in lieu of calcium. Sea salt provides trace elements as well as potassium which some think is required for proper egg development. Finally, I use baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) to increase the pH. If you have soft neutral water, then add one tablespoon epsom salts, a teaspoon of sea salt, and a teaspoon of baking soda for every five gallons of water. If you have hard water, you may only want to adjust the pH to about 8.

Primarypredator says: Even if you have soft water, you may not want to do anything. Cichlids are very adaptable. The water level in Lake Malawi has fluctuated over the aeons, becoming saltier at times, and fresher at others. Plus, the mbuna are most likely descended from riverine fish adapted to soft, acid water. Whatever you choose to do, I prefer to not raise the pH above 8. This is an insurance policy against lazy maintenance schedules, of which I am guilty. As wastes accumulate in the water and it turns yellow, the pH tends to go down. This means that more hydrogen ions are available that bind to ammonia and form ammonium ions, which are not nearly as toxic as free ammonia. Since adding new fish and messing with the tank is part of the hobby, the nitrogen cycle is always being thrown slightly out of equilibrium. A well-aged tank that has 50 percent of its water changed with pH 9 water will experience a burst of toxicity as the ammonium ion is instantly converted to free ammonia. So be careful. I recommend never fooling with the pH unless it is in combination with a water change, and even then do it gradually.

Primarypredator says: Tank decorations themselves are best geared towards the needs of the fish. A one centimeter layer of gravel consisting of crushed coral is best, as the coral will slowly dissolve and increase the hardness, and help to maintain the pH. However, fish do not show as well over a white substrate, so you may want to mix the coral with darker aquarium gravel. Dolomite (crushed limestone) does not dissolve as well as coral, and is not as desirable for that reason. It may also contain copper and other metals sometimes found in limestone. I do not have experience with crushed oyster shells, but they probably perform a similar function as crushed coral gravel.

Primarypredator says: For rocks, I like to make caves out of cantaloupe-sized rocks and large pieces of slate. These can be stacked up, but falling over is always a risk. If the first layer of slate is raised only a few centimeters above the substrate, females and other smaller and harassed fish can have a convenient place to hide down low where the food falls. I also like to use pumice rock. This inert volcanic rock floats, and it is soft and porous. It is easily drilled with a two inch bit, forming tunnels and caves. Then, I put the pieces into a large kettle of boiling water, and hold them under water with a heavy piece of granite or basalt. After 10 minutes or so, the pumice is lifted out and dropped into a bucket full of cold water, and again weighted down. After the pieces cool, they will now sink like feathers falling through the air. This means they can be piled up fairly high in the aquarium will minimal risk of cracked tank bottoms if they fall over. The rough surface of the pumice helps hold them together, and the tunnels make for many microhabitats. The porous interior of the stones may even bring a modicum of denitrification to the tank.

Primarypredator says: The water should be heated to 84 - 88 degrees Fahrenheit (Editor note: He meant 74 - 78). The fish will be more active at the higher temperature. Lighting is good, since these fish can be very colorful. But plants are not too popular in my fishroom. I think they do not like all the magnesium in the water. But the fish do not care.

Primarypredator says: It is desirable to have more females than males. The males are the nastier of the sexes, and a breeding group of one male and two or more females is best. Some breeders use bare tanks and a dozen or more fish of the same species. If production is your goal, then this may be best. But in a community situation, it is possible to raise babies in the tank, letting the natural processes take their course (I guess mbuna do eat fry after all!)

Primarypredator says: Females can be netted out and placed into a 10 gallon tank to release their fry. Or, they can be "stripped" of their eggs but holding them gently upside down, forcing their mouth open with a toothpick or finger nail, and shaking their head underwater. I have used a turkey baster: you put the female head first into the large end of the tube, and attach the bulb. Gently draw water into and out of the baster. The eggs will be expelled. But this might damage the gills of the fish.

Primarypredator says: The eggs should be tumbled gently. The easiest way is to cut the bottom off of a plastic butter or yogurt dish that floats, and stretch an old piece of net over the bottom, affixing it with a rubber band. Then place a sponge filter under the floating container, so the eggs are gently agitated. There are many methods available for this. Think up your own! No one way is perfect, just pick out the white eggs as they are dead. Also, the longer you leave the eggs with the female, especially until the have eyes and tails, the more likely you are of success.

Primarypredator says: And now a note on evolution. It seems that the splitters have taken over Lake Malawi and Lake Victoria. Many fish with minor visible and little genetic differences are being classified as new species. This is also happening with the Lake Victorian species, even though new evidence suggests the lake may be only 10,000 years old. In Lake Tanganyika, the lumpers are more at work for now, with similar forms from different parts of the lake being described as color morphs, and not new species.

Primarypredator says: In Malawi there are no easy explanations for how the different forms came to be, whether we call them species of color morphs. The usual evolutionary model says that species evolve in isolation. Yet in Lake Malawi, very closely related forms manage to hold onto their identity even in the same ecological niche. In the aquarium most of the species readily hybridize. Now some scientists are suggesting that this happens in the Lake occasionally also.

Primarypredator says: The evidence normally used by anatomists suggests that all the fish in Lake Malawi are from the same original stock, since they all share a peculiar set of scales at the end of their lateral lines, that no fish anywhere else have. Now, DNA analysis is being used to better understand which species are more closely related than others. So far, there are not any of the normally clear differences you might find between horses and zebras for instance. Instead, some are suggesting that female fish select the male fish they breed with. In other words, instead of survival of the fittest, it's more like survival of the prettiest.

Primarypredator says: Its hard to imagine actually what criteria a female PS. zebra may use to select her mate with anthropomorphizing (imposing our human values). The interesting part is, what if water quality suffered, and the females couldn't see straight or clearly? Then, they may pick the "wrong" mate. So the relationships amongst the different Malawi cichlids are not clear. Some think there may have been several lineages early on, giving rise to the Aulonocaras, the zebras, the labidochromis etc. The Haplochromine species found in deeper water are thought to be a horse of a different color, and not as closely related to the rocky shores fish.

Primarypredator says: Malawi fish are not now endangered, and hopefully will remain available in the hobby forever.

Primarypredator says: Thank you for the invitation to speak, I hope I have been helpful. Now please ask any questions.

JuanMi has released muting.

Juanmi cheers enthusiastically.

Ratman cheers

Cburke tips his hat in greeting to all the fish-heads.

Primarypredator smiles.

JuanMi applauds

Cburke tosses ice-cold beers to everyone in the room!

rsf claps

Pete applauds

Dev cheers enthusiastically.

TheDon says: Nice job Eric.

JPaul claps loudly :)

Primarypredator says: chug

Ratman raises his hand

Juanmi says: Yes ratman

Ratman says: is Pseudotropheus crabro the correct/current name for the species and what is it's position in the food chain

Primarypredator asks: Those of you who have kept up on the new names are going to eat me alive. I think crabro is known as the bumblebee, no?

Ratman says: yes

TheDon asks: Is it also known as ornatus?

Primarypredator asks: Then it is definitely a mbuna! But I'm not sure about more than that. Can anyone comment?

Ratman says: I am unintentionally breeding them like crazy...but I have noticed them to be among the most hostile mbuna I have ever seen

TheDon says: I'm not certain of its position in the food chain, but it gets large and is extremely aggressive in the aquarium.

Allan raises his hand.

Juanmi asks: Allan?

Allan asks: I believe you said you keep mbuna at 84 to 88 degrees. Are there any drawbacks to using temperatures that high?

Primarypredator says: High temperatures mean the fish are more aggressive. It just speeds up their metabolism: they eat more, grow faster, and require more water changes. I don't know of any more serious drawbacks.

Allan says: OK, thanks.

Primarypredator exclaims: Did I say 84-88? I meant 74-78!!!!!!!!

Primarypredator grins sheepishly.

Juanmi grins.

Cburke chuckles.

Pete laughs.

Allan laughs

Dev laughs.

Primarypredator laughs.

Dev says: did you also mean to say Fahrenheit? :)

Primarypredator says: Fish soup

Cburke says: I was gonna say...probably no ich in your tanks.

Pete raises his hand

Dev raises his hand.

Pete raises his hand higher than dev's

Dev ties Pete down with duct tape and tosses him in the back room.

Juanmi asks: Pete?

Pete asks: you mentioned that use water straight from your sink, how do you adjust your temp as you fill up the you mean that the fish are still in the tank when you do so?

Primarypredator says: I know where the knobs need to go for APPROXIMATELY 75 F. so I just turn on the cold first and fill. As the tank is filling, I add whatever needed chemicals and salts.

Pete nods his head in understanding.

Pete says: I actually store my water

Ratman says: and I've been taking pains to condition water in 60g trash bins...

rsf says: I do the same Pete...straight from the tap

Primarypredator says: If you have chloramines in your water it may be a different ball game. No chloramines here, Yet.

Dev says: I have a question- what is the survival rate for fry in a species only tank, colony former like labidochromis sp.

Primarypredator says: In a tank with lots of rocks, I kept a group of BB zebras. Though probably fewer survive than by close management, after a few months I took 150 fry out of that 90 gallons. I had 2 males and four or five females.

JPaul raises his hand

Juanmi asks: Paul?

JPaul asks: What is your opinion on Undergravel filters?

Primarypredator says: UG filters. I don't use them. They are good biological filters. They get dirty. Waste accumulates. I don't like it. Good for community and display tanks, if there are no diggers. OR just bury a piece of egg crate two inches above the filter plate and below the gravel.

Dev says: how long does it normally take for mbuna to release fry? Books average 3-4 weeks, but mine hold a lot longer (I've always stripped mine)

Primarypredator says: I think 3-4 weeks about right. They will hold for longer. Some will practice longer care, letting them out for a while to eat and then taking them back. Maybe that is happening to you.

Ratman says: mine released after 3-4 weeks then promptly died of starvation :(

Dev asks: when you say 3-4 weeks, does that mean from time eggs are incubated?

Primarypredator says: 3-4 weeks from spawning

rsf says: what was the Aulonocara you mentioned at the start of your talk? the "red shoulder"

Primarypredator says: Why that would be Aulonocara nyassae

Primarypredator says: Nyassae is an old name that just shows you should call someone, like (free pitch) Steve Lundblad, who knows all the names

rsf says: he just spoke at our club last night...I was quizzing you :-)

Ratman asks: what are your thoughts on W/D vs. canister filtration for larger tanks?

Primarypredator says: I've built some homemade wet dries and really liked them. I have a canister (eheim) and it does a good job, but just cant handle the volume of waste a lot of fish (number or size) can produce. I want to build some fluidized bed or sand filters. Their capacity is enormous

Primarypredator says: There is a zebrafish breeder (danios) in LA using fluidized bed filters who is able to raise the fish so densely that when placing your hand into the tank a few inches from the glass you cannot see your hand.

Ratman listens to the hum of 2000 gph flowing behind him

Cburke raises his hand.

Juanmi asks: Chris?

Cburke says: I was just wondering...this is a little off the subject, but I was wondering if any cichlid experts have ever heard of a Red Katanga, trade name for (God knows what).

Ratman asks: Tropheus sp. maybe?

Primarypredator asks: Can't help with katanga. Catfish or killifish?

Cburke says: it's an African cichlid

TheDon says: I've heard of a red fin kandango, which is a red fin borleyi type.

Cburke says: Grey body, orange fins...someone suggested to me Pseudotropheus brevis

Cburke shrugs.

Ratman says: Tropheus moorii or duboisi

Pete asks: red kangaroo?

Cburke says: I don't think Tropheus.....head not blunt like that

Primarypredator says: I think theDon is right, borleyi

RgrMill says: Goodnight folks. It was an interesting talk Eric. Thank you.

Primarypredator says: Thanks for logging in.

rsf asks: do you recommend a varied diet...or sticking with one food?

Primarypredator says: A good quality spirulina flake, and occasional (a few times a week) live baby brine. Cichlid flakes or pellets are OK.

Bluesman asks: does anyone recommend the bottled additives for lake Malawi and Tanganyika?

Primarypredator says: I think the bottles stuff is nice but not necessary.

Bluesman says: the guy at the fish store said it was bogus, so I didn't buy any, I have good luck without it anyway.

Pete says: I use a stuff called -- you guessed it -- rift lake salt...makes life very easy, and I just add kh powder

Primarypredator says: Rift Lake Salt does work well. Just costs more. I think they have calcium bicarbonate.

Pete says: the kh powder makes all the difference with my tanganyikans, really "perks" them up

Primarypredator asks: What is in kH powder?

Pete says: its carbonate hardness used to stabilize the pH

Dev asks: have you successfully mixed Tanganyikans and Malawians?

Primarypredator says: Tropheus and some of the smaller haps or peacocks do well together.

Dev asks: you don't find the tropheus bully the peacocks?

rsf says: I had a peacock with my duboisi....the Tropheus really seemed to ignore everyone of the Malawi's

Primarypredator says: Peacocks seem to disburse the aggression without receiving it.

JPaul asks: Eric I have or my fish have some black around their mouths. Any ideas?

Primarypredator says: Back around the mouths? Please elaborate.

JPaul says: Well it looks like black smudges or even dots. Its just around their mouths, nowhere else.

Primarypredator asks: Is it raised, like a parasite? If not, is it black and shiny, or dull; is it the same color as black on an ob zebra?

Pete says: they been eating to much poop jpaul :)

Primarypredator grins.

Primarypredator says: If anyone has more questions. just drop me some email at [email protected]

rsf says: thanks again eric

Juanmi says: Thanks again Eric, it was a very interesting talk


Hanneman, Eric. (May 27, 1996). "A Beginners Guide to Keeping and Breeding Cichlids from Lake Malawi". Cichlid Room Companion. Retrieved on October 31, 2020, from: