Male at Chinyamwezi Island
A male of Iodotropheus sprengerae at Chinyamwezi Island, Lake Malawi [Malawi]. Photo by Juan Miguel Artigas Azas. (06-Nov-2008). determiner Ad Konings






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Iodotropheus sprengerae Oliver & Loiselle, 1972


Original description as Iodotropheus sprengerae:


  • Oliver, Michael K. & Paul V. Loiselle. 1972. "A New Genus and Species of Cichlid of the Mbuna Group (Pisces: Cichlidae) from Lake Malawi". Revue de Zoologie et Botanique Africaines. 309-320 (crc00109) (abstract)

Synonyms (1):

Taxonomic history:

Etymology: Dedicated to Mrs. Katherine Sprenger, who recognized first this fish as an undescribed species in aquarium publications.

Common names: United States: rusty cichlid.


Holotype: A 79.1 mm standard length (SL) male stored at the National History Museum [London], with registration BMNH 1971.9.8.5. Paratypes: One male 76.0 mm SL and two females (45.5 and 46.5 mm SL respectively) stored with registration BMNH 1971.9.8.6-8; Tree males 62.0-82.8 mm SL and one female 73.2 mm SL stored at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History [Washington] with registrations USNM 207012, 207013-15, reputedly from Boadzulu Island (see comments). A Neotype from Chinyankwazi Island has been later designated by Stauffer (1994) and it is stored at the Pennsylvania State University Museum with registration PSU 2721.

Diagnosis: Iodotropheus sprengerae is a small Labidochromis-like dwarf mbuna with rusty orange-brown coloration, with males showing lavender blue flanks. It differs from other Labidochromis-shaped mbuna such as Labidochromis vellicans by its warmer ground color as well as by its bicuspid teeth and rounder muzzle (vs pointed). Some other dwarf mbuna such as Pseudotropheus minutus also have the same body, head and teeth shape and sizes, but their main color is blue with black barring, more common in mbuna.

Size: Up to 78.6 mm SL (around 9 cm TL), becoming larger in aquarium.

Sex dimorphism: Males are larger and bluer than females, with a more pronounced frontal hump and longer fins.

Type locality: Lake Malawi.

Distribution: Only found from around Cninyamwezi, Chinyankwazi and Boadzulu islands in Lake Malawi [Malawi], including Makokola Reef.

Habitat: Iodotropheus sprengerae lives in a variety of rocky habitats and is normally found over large rocks and slabs, medium-sized rocks and small rocks. It also occurs in areas where detritus and organic ooze accumulate in pockets among the rocks and occasionally in the intermediate zones at Boadzulu Island. It is most numerous between 3 and 15 m depth, but occurs from the surface to at least 40 m (Ribbink et al., 1983).


Conservation: Iodotropheus sprengerae is evaluated by the international union for the conservation of nature in the iucn red list of threatened species as (VU) vulnerable (2006).

Feeding: According to Ribbink et al. (1983), the members of this species feed by nipping at the Aufwuchs (algae, crustaceans, insect larvae and nymphs) and upon plankton (zoo- and phytoplankton).

In aquarium, this species readily eats all kind of food offered, but as for other mbuna, it must be rationed and given mainly a vegetable diet to avoid obesity and intestinal diseases.

Breeding: As other mbuna, Iodotropheus sprengerae is a maternal mouth-brooder. Males are not territorial, but attract females towards a favorable spawning site by displaying and quivering all around them, then leading them swimming towards the pit with undulating movements of the unpaired fins. Other fishes (conspecific or not) are chased away from the spawning territory during the spawning phase, which lasts for some hours, though the spawning itself takes less than an hour. During the actual spawning phase, both sexes turn around, pressing their anal fin alternatively on the substrate while the partner dabs it with its mouth. Thus, each place in the so-called 'T-position' is taken alternatively by the male and the female. After performing these positions as a kind of rehearsal during some minutes, strings of a few eggs are laid by the female, and immediately taken into her mouth after turning around, then fertilized inside her mouth when the female dabs the anal fin of the male and absorbs the released sperm. The turn-around behavior lasts a quarter to half an hour after the last egg has been laid. After this the female leaves the males' pit and retire into a shelter. She becomes very shy during the first weeks of incubation, then recover some confidence during the last week and reappears at the front of the tank.

In aquarium, the eggs and young are incubated for three weeks (at about 25 °C) inside the female's mouth, then the fry is released within one week, depending on the safety perceived in the tank. The young show the cute rusty orange coloration (especially on the dorsal fin) as soon as they are expelled from the female mouth (see photos).

Aquaristics: Iodotropheus sprengerae is among the first mbuna to have been exported from the very beginning of the 1970s, and it quickly became a must for fanciers beginning with mbuna. Thanks to its small size, very cute looks and coloration, and despite its limited distribution, mainly located in Malawi National Park, Iodotropheus sprengerae has become a favorite among mbuna and it is aquarium bred for decennia. Its small size and not so hard (though males are more quarrelsome than usually believed) temper makes it rather easy to keep even in small tanks. In aquarium, it is possible to keep several males in the same tank, but this should be of rather large size, otherwise, male killings are not rare. Kept as a single male with other small mbuna such as Labidochromis caeruleus, L. joanjohnsonae or Pseudotropheus sp. 'polit', even in rather small tanks (200 l) may be suitable, though it is quite preferable in the long term to give them a larger (400 l) tank. Similarly brown Labidochromis such as L. vellicans are best to avoid in the same tank when small, though these species coexist and compete in the wild.

The water conditions must be similar to those of other lively African Great Lakes cichlids, namely alkaline and moderately hard at 23-26 °C, with a regular maintenance comprising water changes and filter cleaning.

Comments: Though Iodotropheus sprengerae is among the best known of all Malawi cichlids from the very early days of their exportation from Lake Malawi, its nomenclatural history has been very confusing. It has been sold under erroneous identities such as Petrotilapia tridentiger or Melanochromis brevis, two giants among mbuna while Iodotropheus sprengerae is a dwarf! Then, several nomina nuda such as Iodochromis sprengeri were used, even after its description by Oliver and Loiselle in 1972.

Later, Stauffer (1994) questioned the type locality since the Malawi exporter Peter Davies often gave vague indications. Additionally the types were aquarium bred specimens, which were only supposed as coming from Boadzulu Island, but their origin was probably rather either Chinyankwazi or Chinyamwezi Islands. Stauffer also noted morphological differences between Chinyankwazi and Chinyamwezi populations with that of Boadzulu Island, and decided to describe the Boadzulu population as Iodotropheus declivitas, in reference to its steeper frontal profile and differences in oral and pharyngeal teeth arrangements.

Later, Konings (1995) was not convinced that the differences put forward by Stauffer were enough for considering both species as distinct and synonymized Iodotropheus declivitas with I. sprengerae. I have observed several imports from the end of the 1970s, either originating from the Chinyankwazi-Chinyamwezi northern distribution or the Boadzulu-Makokola southern distribution, and found no morphological differences among them, the northern specimens even seeming to show a steeper frontal profile than the southern ones. Nevertheless, there are some slight color differences between both populations, with the southern fish showing a more intense lavender blue flank coloration in males, and also a more pronounced black submarginal band in the dorsal fin. If we agree with Stauffer's statements about the actual origin of the types (or refer to the neotype's locality, which is Chinyankwazi), I. declivitas remains arguably usable as a sub-specific status.

Iodotropheus sprengerae is also considered as a different mbuna with no close relative (except for other species proposed in the same genus, which are not very similar to it). Konings (2007) considered it as an ancient species with a fragmentary distribution in the southern part of the lake. Indeed, Iodotropheus sprengerae probably has found refuge around islands escaping competition from other mbuna, such as Labidochromis vellicans, which is similarly sized and occupies the same ecological niche. But as showed by Lewis' (1982) examination of several dwarves among mbuna, this species does not differ so much from them, and it remains possible that the closest relatives of Iodotropheus sprengerae are to be found among brownish with lavender blue flanks Labidochromis species, such as L. vellicans.

References (8):

  • Konings, Ad. 2013. "The Cichlids of Lake Malawi National Park". Cichlid Press. 1-327. ISBN: 978-1-932892-14-7 (crc05741) (abstract)
  • Konings, Ad. 2007. "Malawi cichlids in their natural habitat (4th edition)". Cichlid Press. 424 (crc01558)
  • Konings, Ad. 1995. "Malawi cichlids in their natural habitat (2nd edition)". Cichlid Press. 352. ISBN: 978-0966825534 (crc01582)
  • Lewis, Digby. 1982. "A Revision of the Genus Labidochromis (Teleostei: Cichlidae) from Lake Malawi". Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society. 189-265 (crc00119)
  • Oliver, Michael K. & Paul V. Loiselle. 1972. "A New Genus and Species of Cichlid of the Mbuna Group (Pisces: Cichlidae) from Lake Malawi". Revue de Zoologie et Botanique Africaines. 309-320 (crc00109) (abstract)
  • Ribbink, Anthony J & B.A. Marsh, A.C. Marsh, A.C. Ribbink, B.J. Sharp. 1983. "A preliminary survey of the cichlid fishes of rocky habitats in Lake Malawi". South African Journal of Zoology (Zool. Dierkunde). 18(3): 149-310 (crc01386)
  • Sprenger, Kappy. 1970. "The rusty cichlid". Tropical Fish Hobbyist Magazine. 18(12):26-40 (crc01766)
  • Stauffer, Jay Richard Jr.. 1994. "A new species of Iodotropheus (Teleostei: Cichlidae) from Lake Malawi, Africa". Ichthyological Explorations of Freshwaters. 5(4):331-344 (crc00110)


Tawil, Patrick. (Dec 30, 2012). "Iodotropheus sprengerae Oliver & Loiselle, 1972". Cichlid Room Companion. Retrieved on May 24, 2024, from: (crc10359)