Mbuna Cichlid – Care, Habitat, Tank Mates & Details You Need!

Renowned for their electric hues and spirited behavior, Mbuna Cichlids are an aquatic marvel to behold. These freshwaters gems, native to the rocky shores of Lake Malawi in East Africa, are an ideal choice for aquarists seeking an active, vibrant addition to their home aquariums.

Situated among the territories of Tanzania, Malawi, and Mozambique, Lake Malawi spans over an impressive 11,000 square miles, providing a habitat for approximately 850 cichlid species.

One of the most prevalent and manageable groups within these species is the Mbuna.

In the native language of the Tonga people of Malawi, Mbuna, pronounced as “boo-nuh”, signifies “rockfish”.

Noted for their vibrant colors and fascinating behavior, these fish are often found lurking within rocky caverns.

Overview of Mbuna Cichlids

Originating from Lake Malawi, Mbuna cichlids form a large group of diverse species. While their behavior, diet, compatibility, and color may vary, they all share one common trait – they thrive in rocky habitats.

Thus, a tank filled with rocks is vital for their well-being and comfort. These fish might disrupt plants, either by digging or consuming plant matter, hence many plants do not coexist well with them.

Mbuna Cichlids are a visual treat, boasting a spectrum of colors, from vivid blues, yellows, to striking oranges and blacks.

Their zesty personality matches their brilliant exterior, making them one of the most sought-after cichlids in the aquarium hobby.

These lively creatures are territorial by nature and display fascinating social hierarchies. With their propensity to establish and defend their territories, the tank becomes a dynamic stage for their spirited interactions.

Mbuna cichlids spend a significant portion of their time hidden within rock caves. Despite their preference for hiding, you’ll frequently spot these active fish swimming throughout the tank during the day.

Recognizing the territorial and aggressive nature of Cichlids is important, necessitating a careful selection of tank mates. It’s essential to familiarize yourself with the typical behavior of the Mbuna species you plan to introduce to your aquarium.

Certain Mbuna display heightened aggression and territoriality when brought home in pairs or groups. Others acclimatize better when they are introduced to the tank.

This detailed guide dives into the enchanting world of Mbuna Cichlids, covering their unique characteristics, natural habitats, dietary needs, and essential care tips to ensure these stunning species thrive in your care.

Quick Stats About Mbuna Cichlids

Species Name: Some common Mbuna cichlids include Genyochromis, Labidochromis, Labeotropheus, Melanochromis, Pseudotropheus, and Iodotropheus
Family: Haplochromine
Care Level: Moderate to difficult
Temperature: 73-84˚F
Temperament: Aggressive
Color Form: Orange, yellow, and bright blue are common
Lifespan: Up to 10 years
Size: 2-8 inches
Diet: Herbivorous with occasional offerings like bloodworms
Minimum Tank Size: 30 gallons
Tank Set-Up: Rocks with plenty of hides and caves
Compatibility: Peaceful bottom-dwellers and other fish that frequently hide in rocky environments

Mbuna Cichlids’ Appearance

Mbuna cichlids exhibit a vibrant array of colors and patterns that make them an eye-catching feature in any aquarium setting.

Their predominant color forms include bright blue, orange, and yellow, although these can vary significantly among different species. Their bodies are typically elongated and range from 2 to 8 inches in size, depending on the species and sex.

Popular Mbuna cichlids species like the Bumblebee Cichlid exhibit distinct black and yellow stripes, mirroring the insect they derive their name from.

As these fish mature, their coloration darkens, but they retain their characteristic yellow hue throughout their lifespan.

On the other hand, Electric Yellow Cichlids maintain their bright, electric yellow coloration for the most part, with only occasional black stripes and bars appearing as they age.

Each Mbuna species is unique in its appearance, making them an exciting and diverse group of fish to keep.

Whether it’s the Golden Cichlid with its striking yellow and black striping or the Red Zebra Cichlid with its deeper orange hues, each species brings its own splash of color to the aquatic world.

Natural Habitat of Mbuna Cichlids

The natural environment of Mbuna cichlids is largely defined by the rocky underwater landscapes of Lake Malawi, located between Tanzania, Malawi, and Mozambique.

This freshwater lake spans over 11,000 square miles and is home to a diverse range of cichlid species, including the Mbuna group.

In their natural habitat, these rock-dwelling fish spend a significant amount of time hiding within rocky caves and crevices. Their name, ‘Mbuna,’ actually translates to ‘rockfish’ in the Tonga language of Malawi, reflecting their rock-oriented lifestyle.

To replicate their natural environment in an aquarium, a set-up rich in rocks, hides, and caves is ideal.

This environment not only satisfies their natural instincts but also contributes to their overall health and happiness.

Initially, the mbuna cichlids belonged to the Pseudotropheus genus, but this is no longer the case as they have been moved into their genera.

For instance, the zebra cichlids are now categorized into Maylandia, Pseudotropheus, and Tropheops genera.

These fish usually occupy big tanks and are placed in groups, which makes them the focal point of the entire setup. The zebra cichlid isn’t the only species of mbunas. The fish in the mbuna category are usually full of colors and vibrant.

A mbuna can be identified through not just their bright colors but also their patterns which are numerous and eye-catching.

The majority of male mbunas are blue, while the females are usually yellow. These colors are contrasted by a spattering of other colors and black bars.

Origin and Distribution of Mbuna Cichlids

Mbuna cichlids are native to the clear, warm waters of Lake Malawi, one of the African Great Lakes known for its incredible biodiversity.

The lake is home to an estimated 850 cichlid species, a significant number of which belong to the Mbuna group. This makes Lake Malawi one of the most densely populated and diverse cichlid habitats globally.

Mbuna cichlids have been distributed worldwide through the aquarium trade due to their lively behavior and vibrant coloration.

Despite their specific care needs and somewhat aggressive temperament, these fish have become popular pets among aquarists of all levels, contributing to their widespread availability.

Growth, Size & Lifespan of Mbuna Cichlids

Mbuna cichlids are relatively medium-sized fish, growing anywhere from 2 to 8 inches in length, depending on the specific species.

The growth rate of these fish is largely dependent on the quality of care they receive. With a balanced diet, appropriate tank conditions, and regular health checks, they can reach their full size within a year.

As for their lifespan, Mbuna cichlids are known for their longevity. Under optimal conditions, they can live up to 10 years, making them a long-term commitment for any aquarist.

Factors such as diet, water quality, and stress levels can significantly impact their lifespan. Providing your Mbuna cichlids with a quality diet, maintaining excellent water conditions, and minimizing stress by ensuring appropriate tank mates and environment are key to promoting a healthy and long life for these vibrant fish.

Mbuna Cichlids Behavior and Temperament

Mbuna cichlids are fascinating, displaying a unique blend of vivacity and aggression. Renowned for their vibrant colors, they also exhibit intriguing behaviors, particularly their territorial instincts.

Mbuna cichlids are known to assert their dominance, defending their habitats with assertive zeal. However, when provided with ample space and hiding spots, their aggression can be managed, creating a harmonious underwater community.

When it comes to behavior, Mbuna cichlids are a bundle of energy, always on the move. They’re social creatures, often seen interacting with their tank mates. However, they do have a territorial streak, which is why it’s crucial to have a spacious tank and plenty of hiding spots.

Despite their somewhat feisty nature, observing their behaviors is a joy. You’ll often see them foraging in the substrate or engaging in fascinating displays of social dynamics.

Understanding their behavior and temperament can significantly enhance the experience of keeping these vividly colored, lively fish.

Types of Mbuna Cichlids

Mbuna Cichlids, with their splash of vibrant colors and spirited behavior, have become a preferred choice for fish enthusiasts worldwide.

In this section, we will journey through the captivating world of Mbuna Cichlids, introducing you to their diverse types and unique attributes.

1. Yellow Lab Cichlid (Labidochromis caeruleus)

The Yellow Lab Cichlid, also known as the Electric Yellow Cichlid, is a favorite among aquarists. Sporting a luminous yellow color that stands out in any tank, this species is relatively peaceful, making them a great choice for beginners.

2. Bumblebee Cichlid (Pseudotropheus crabro)

Named after the insect it resembles, the Bumblebee Cichlid displays striking yellow and black stripes. However, this species is more aggressive and requires a spacious tank with plenty of hiding spots.

3. Red Zebra Cichlid (Metriaclima estherae)

The Red Zebra Cichlid, despite its name, comes in various colors, including orange, blue, and pink. They are hardy fish, but their territorial nature requires careful planning when introducing them to a community tank.

4. Blue Zebra Cichlid (Metriaclima callainos)

Blue Zebra Cichlids, with their mesmerizing blue hues, add a serene touch to your aquarium. They are a hardy breed and can coexist with other Mbuna species with similar temperament.

5. Kenyi Cichlid (Metriaclima lombardoi)

Kenyi Cichlids are known for their dramatic color change as they mature. While females retain their juvenile yellow hue, males transform into a striking blue. Keep in mind; this species is aggressive and best kept with other robust fish.

6. Demasoni Cichlid (Pseudotropheus demasoni)

Demasoni Cichlids, with their vibrant blue bodies and black vertical stripes, are indeed eye-catching. However, they are one of the more aggressive Mbuna species and need ample space and hiding spots.

However, their aggressive nature and specific needs require careful consideration and planning. Whether you’re a seasoned aquarist or a beginner, there’s an Mbuna Cichlid waiting to add color and excitement to your aquarium!

Tank Setup: Crafting the Ideal Mbuna Cichlids Habitat

Setting up an aquarium that mimics the natural habitat of Mbuna cichlids is pivotal in ensuring their well-being.

Here are some key factors to consider:

Tank Size

The tank size for Mbuna cichlids should be chosen with care. A minimum of 30 gallons is recommended for smaller species, while larger species may require up to 75 gallons.

Remember, a spacious tank contributes to mitigating territorial disputes and promoting healthy growth.


Opt for a sandy substrate to best mimic Mbuna cichlids’ natural environment. This allows them to burrow and forage without injury.

Various cichlid-specific substrates are available in the market that also helps maintain the right water pH.

Decorations and Hiding Spots

Mbuna cichlids love to hide and explore. Create ample hiding spots using rocks, caves, and driftwood.

This not only provides a safe haven for your fish but also reduces aggression by defining territories.

Water Parameters

Maintaining appropriate water parameters is crucial. Mbuna cichlids prefer slightly alkaline water with a pH of 7.5-8.5.

The temperature should be kept within 73-84°F. Regular water testing can ensure these parameters are maintained.

Filtration and Aeration

A high-quality filtration system is essential to maintain water quality. Given the Mbuna’s diet, a combination of mechanical, chemical, and biological filtration is recommended.

Ample aeration ensures sufficient oxygen levels, contributing to a healthier aquarium.


While Mbuna cichlids don’t have specific lighting needs, maintaining a consistent day-night cycle is beneficial. This cycle helps to regulate their biological rhythms, contributing to overall health.

Tank Mates

Selecting the right tank mates for Mbuna cichlids is essential. Consider other rock-dwelling species that can match the Mbuna’s active lifestyle.

Avoid pairing with other Mbuna species to prevent hybridization and territorial disputes.


Mbuna cichlids thrive on a plant-based diet. Supplement their diet with commercially available cichlid food and fresh vegetables.

The occasional addition of protein-rich foods like bloodworms or brine shrimp can add variety.

Monitoring Health

Regular monitoring of your Mbuna cichlids’ health is vital. Look for signs of disease or stress, including changes in color, appetite, or behavior.

Regular water testing and maintaining ideal conditions will go a long way in ensuring a healthy, vibrant aquarium.

Tank Maintenance of Mbuna Cichlids

To keep your Mbuna cichlids healthy and thriving, regular tank maintenance is crucial.

Here’s a detailed breakdown of what that involves:

Regular Water Changes

Water changes are a crucial part of tank maintenance. For Mbuna cichlids, aim to replace 10-20% of the tank’s water every week.

This helps keep the water clean, the nitrate levels low, and the pH stable, replicating the clean, alkaline waters of their natural habitat.

Cleaning the Tank and Decorations

Along with water changes, cleaning the tank and decorations is essential to prevent algae buildup and remove any uneaten food or waste.

However, avoid using any harsh chemicals that could harm your fish. Instead, opt for a scrubbing pad or a tank-safe cleaning solution.

Filter Maintenance

The filter plays a vital role in maintaining the water quality of your tank. To ensure it’s working efficiently, clean it once a month using the water you’ve removed during a water change.

This preserves the beneficial bacteria while removing any debris that could clog the filter and reduce its effectiveness.

Monitor Fish Health

Lastly, always keep an eye on your Mbuna cichlids’ health. Look out for any changes in their behavior, appetite, or coloration, as these could be signs of stress or illness.

If you notice anything unusual, consult a vet or a fish health professional. Remember, prevention is always better than cure.

With regular maintenance and vigilant observation, you can ensure a healthy, happy life for your Mbuna cichlids.

Acclimating Mbuna Cichlids

When you bring your Mbuna cichlids home, it’s essential to acclimate them to their new environment slowly and carefully.

This process helps them adjust to the temperature, pH, and other water parameters of your aquarium, reducing stress and improving their chances of thriving in their new home.

Begin by floating the bag containing the fish in the tank for about 15-20 minutes. This step allows the water in the bag to slowly match the temperature of the tank.

After this, slowly introduce some tank water into the bag. Repeat this process over the next hour, allowing the fish to gradually adjust to the water chemistry of your tank.

Once the acclimation process is complete, gently release the fish into the tank. Avoid pouring water from the bag into the aquarium to prevent introducing any potential contaminants.

Mbuna Cichlids Diet and Feeding

Mbuna cichlids are predominantly herbivores, and their diet requires a focus on plant-based foods. Here’s a detailed guide on what to feed them:

High-Quality Pellets or Flakes

Choose a high-quality pellet or flake food made specifically for cichlids. Look for one that lists spirulina or other vegetable matter as the primary ingredient.

Fresh Vegetables

Supplement their diet with fresh vegetables like blanched spinach, peas, or zucchini. These not only provide essential nutrients but also help with digestion.

Live and Frozen Foods

While Mbuna cichlids are primarily herbivores, they can benefit from occasional servings of live or frozen foods. Try brine shrimp, daphnia, or bloodworms for a protein-rich treat. However, these should only be a small part of their diet.

Feeding Schedule

Feed your Mbuna cichlids 2-3 times a day, but only give them what they can eat within a few minutes. Overfeeding can lead to water quality issues and health problems in the fish.

Avoid Meaty Foods

Avoid feeding your Mbuna cichlids a diet heavy in meaty foods. Their digestive systems are not equipped to handle it, and it can lead to health problems.

Remember, a varied diet is key to keeping your Mbuna cichlids healthy and vibrant. With the right food and feeding schedule, you can ensure they’re getting the nutrients they need to thrive.

Mbuna Cichlids Tank Mates and Tank Mates to Avoid

When it comes to choosing tank mates for Mbuna cichlids, it’s crucial to select other fish that can coexist peacefully with them.

Here are some suitable choices, as well as those you should avoid:

Suitable Tank Mates

  1. Other Mbuna Cichlids: They are naturally a community fish and can get along well with others of their kind, provided there’s enough space.

  2. Yellow Lab Cichlids (Labidochromis caeruleus): These are peaceful cichlids that can coexist with Mbuna cichlids.

  3. Peacock Cichlids (Aulonocara species): These fish are usually peaceful enough to coexist with Mbuna.

  4. Acei Cichlids (Pseudotropheus acei): These are known to be one of the more peaceful Mbuna species, making them a good choice.

  5. Rusty Cichlids (Iodotropheus sprengerae): They have a peaceful nature, which makes them suitable tank mates.

Tank Mates to Avoid

  1. Small, Non-Aggressive Fish: Any fish that is significantly smaller or less aggressive than the Mbuna cichlids, such as tetras or guppies, should be avoided.

  2. Slow-Moving or Long-Finned Fish: Slow-moving or long-finned species like Angelfish can be a target for the active and sometimes nippy Mbuna.

  3. Oscar Fish: Their aggressive nature can lead to clashes with Mbuna cichlids.

  4. Jack Dempsey Fish: These are highly aggressive fish and are not compatible with Mbuna cichlids.

  5. Discus Fish: These require different water conditions and are not suitable tank mates.

Breeding Mbuna Cichlids and Fry Care

Breeding Mbuna cichlids is a natural process that can be fascinating to observe and participate in.

These fish are mouthbrooders, meaning the female holds the eggs in her mouth until they hatch.

This unique aspect of their reproduction creates some specific requirements for successful breeding and fry care.

Preparing for Breeding

  1. Understanding Gender Differences: The first step towards successful breeding is understanding the gender differences in Mbuna cichlids.

    Male Mbunas are typically more colorful and slightly larger than their female counterparts. They also display territorial behavior, which intensifies during the breeding season.

  2. Creating the Right Environment: Mbuna cichlids prefer a rocky environment with plenty of hiding spots, especially for breeding.

    Creating such an environment in your aquarium replicates their natural habitat, encouraging them to breed.

    Adding caves or rock formations in the tank provides suitable locations for the females to lay their eggs.

  3. Feeding High-Quality Food: Feeding your Mbunas a diet rich in protein can improve their health and increase their willingness to breed.

    Foods like brine shrimp, spirulina flakes, and high-quality cichlid pellets are excellent choices.

The Breeding Process

  1. Courtship: Male Mbuna cichlids perform a courtship display to attract females.

    This display involves flaring their fins, showing off their vibrant colors, and performing a specific ‘dance’ to draw the attention of the females.

  2. Mouthbrooding: After attracting a male, the female lays her eggs and promptly scoops them into her mouth.

    The male will then fertilize the eggs while they’re in the female’s mouth. This process of holding the eggs in the mouth is known as mouthbrooding.

Fry Care

  1. Separating the Fry: After the eggs hatch in the female’s mouth, she will continue to protect them for a while.

    However, once she releases the fry, they are vulnerable to predation by other fish in the tank. It’s advisable to move the fry to a separate, safe tank.

  2. Feeding the Fry: You can feed the Mbuna fry the same food as their parents, but you must crush it into smaller pieces.

    High-quality cichlid flakes, brine shrimp, and finely crushed peas are good choices.

  3. Growing Out: Keep the fry in the separate tank until they are large enough to defend themselves. Typically, this is when they reach about 1 inch in length.

  4. Gradual Introduction: When reintroducing the fry to the main tank, do it gradually. Monitor closely to ensure they are not bullied or attacked by the larger fish.

Remember, breeding Mbuna cichlids can take time and patience, but observing their unique reproductive behavior is an experience worth the wait.

Signs of Stress in Mbuna Cichlids

Like any living creature, Mbuna cichlids can show signs of stress.

Recognizing these signs is crucial to ensure their wellbeing:

  • Changes in Color: Mbuna cichlids are known for their vibrant colors. A significant change or dulling of these colors can indicate stress.

  • Changes in Behavior: A stressed Mbuna might behave unusually. This can include loss of appetite, increased aggression, or abnormal swimming patterns.

  • Hiding: While Mbunas do enjoy hiding, spending excessive time away from view can be a sign of stress.

If you notice any of these signs, it is essential to identify and rectify the stressor.

This could be poor water quality, improper diet, bullying from tank mates, or illness.

Common Health Issues and Treatments for Mbuna Cichlids

Mbuna cichlids, like any other fish, can be prone to certain health issues.

Knowledge of these common problems and their appropriate treatments can make a huge difference in your fish’s health and longevity.

Malawi Bloat

Malawi Bloat is a common disease that affects African cichlids, including Mbunas.

It’s typically caused by a poor diet or overfeeding, leading to a swollen abdomen, loss of appetite, and difficulty in swimming.

Treatment: The key to treating Malawi Bloat is early detection and intervention. Adjust your fish’s diet to include more plant-based foods and less protein.

Medications like metronidazole can also be administered as per vet’s advice.

Ich or White Spot Disease

Ich is a parasitic disease that presents as small white spots on the fish’s body, leading to scratching, rapid breathing, and lethargy.

Treatment: Increase the tank’s temperature gradually to 86°F (30°C) for a few days to speed up the parasite’s lifecycle. Medications containing malachite green or formalin can be used as directed.

Fin Rot

Fin rot is a bacterial infection that causes the fish’s fins to fray and discolor. It’s usually a result of poor water quality or injury.

Treatment: Improve water quality with regular changes and remove any aggressive fish that may be causing injury. Antibiotics like erythromycin can be used if the condition doesn’t improve.

Swim Bladder Disease

This condition affects the fish’s ability to swim properly. Infected fish may swim sideways, upside down, or struggle to maintain their balance.

Treatment: Feeding your Mbuna a pea (with the skin removed) can help ease the symptoms. If the condition persists, consult with a vet for possible medication.

Remember, the best treatment for any disease is prevention. Maintain a clean tank, feed a balanced diet, and monitor your fish regularly to keep them in the best possible health.

Always consult with a vet or a fish health professional if you’re unsure about your fish’s health.

Remember, the health and well-being of your Mbuna cichlids depend on the care and attention you provide.

By understanding their needs and keeping an eye out for potential issues, you can ensure a happy and healthy environment for these stunning fish.

Additional Tips for a Healthy Aquarium

Maintaining a healthy aquarium is a labor of love that requires attention, knowledge, and a proactive approach.

Here are some additional tips to ensure the wellness of your aquarium and its inhabitants:

Water Quality: Always keep an eye on your water parameters. Regular testing for pH, ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate levels is crucial.

Any drastic change can stress your fish, leading to potential health issues.

Aeration: Proper oxygenation is vital for your fish’s survival. Invest in a good quality air pump to ensure that your tank’s oxygen levels are optimal.

Avoid Overcrowding: Overcrowding can lead to stress and competition for resources. A good rule of thumb is to allow 1 gallon of water for every inch of fish.

Dietary Variety: Feed your fish a diverse diet that mimics their natural food sources. This will ensure they receive all necessary nutrients and maintain their vibrant colors.

Should You Get a Mbuna Cichlids for Your Aquarium?

Whether you should get a Mbuna cichlid depends largely on your experience level, available time, and dedication.

Mbuna cichlids are stunning and active fish, providing endless fascination and a splash of color to your tank. However, they also require specific conditions, a proper diet, and a good understanding of their behavior.

If you’re an intermediate to advanced aquarist who is ready to invest time and effort in maintaining an ideal environment, you’ll find Mbuna cichlids to be an excellent match.

By preparing to meet their specific needs and committing to providing a thriving habitat, you can enjoy a rewarding and engaging experience with Mbuna cichlids in your aquarium.

Conservation Status

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has yet to evaluate the conservation status of many specific Mbuna cichlids.

Threats to Lake Malawi, such as overfishing, pollution, and habitat degradation, could put the natural populations of these fish at risk. Therefore, the primary focus of conservation efforts is to preserve the natural habitat of these fish.

As an aquarium owner, you can contribute by choosing to buy from reputable breeders who follow sustainable practices, rather than those who capture wild specimens.

In conclusion, Mbuna cichlids are a joy to keep for any aquarium enthusiast, but they do require a certain level of care and commitment.

With the right approach, you can create a thriving ecosystem for these vibrant fish to flourish.

Availability & Pricing

Mbuna cichlids are a popular choice among aquarium hobbyists for their lively behavior and vivid coloration.

Because of their popularity, they are widely available at both local pet stores and online fish retailers.

The cost of Mbuna cichlids can vary greatly, depending on factors such as the species, size, color pattern, and the breeder’s reputation.

Prices may range from $5 for juvenile or common species, up to $50 or more for mature, rare, or particularly vibrant individuals.

Remember, buying from reputable breeders ensures that you are supporting sustainable practices and receiving a healthy fish.

Frequently Asked Questions About Mbuna cichlids

1. How Many Mbuna Cichlids Can I Keep in a Tank?

The rule of thumb is to allow 1 gallon of water per inch of fish, but remember that Mbuna cichlids are territorial.

You should ensure there are enough hiding spots and enough space to establish territories.

2. Can I Mix Different Species of Mbuna Cichlids?

Yes, you can, but be cautious. Some species may be more aggressive than others, and mixing them could lead to conflicts.

3. What Should I Feed My Mbuna Cichlids?

They thrive on a diet that is high in vegetable matter. You can feed them high-quality cichlid pellets, along with supplements of fresh vegetables and algae.

4. Can Mbuna Cichlids Live with Other Fish?

This depends on the specific species and temperament of the fish.

Generally, they do well with other cichlids of similar size and temperament. Always research before introducing new tank mates.


In conclusion, Mbuna cichlids are a captivating addition to any aquarium, bringing vibrant colors and dynamic activity.

While their care requires a bit more attention and commitment than some other fish, the rewards of keeping these stunning creatures are abundant.

With proper care, a balanced diet, and a well-maintained environment, your Mbuna cichlids can thrive, providing endless fascination and pleasure in your aquatic world.