So you want to start a mbuna tank? Many people see these beautiful fish at their local petstore and decide to set up a tank with not much research. After a while things get crazy and suddenly they are stuck with aggressive fish and are unsure of how to fix the problem. All can be avoided with a little research. With appropriate stocking and care you too can enjoy a colorful and active mbuna tank!

Introduction

Mbuna (pronounced mboo-na) are rock dwelling fish found along the coats of Lake Malawi. This African Lake hosts many different types of cichlids. Mbuna have specialized mouths for grazing on the algae that grow on the surrounding rocks. They live in dense populations and competition is high. Males spend their days protecting territories and trying to entice females to breed.

The Tank

When setting up a mbuna tank it is best to try and replicate their natural environment. When picking out the tank itself it is best to go for a tank that is at least 4 feet long. Mbuna are very territorial and will appreciate a larger footprint. A 3 foot tank can work but you will be greatly limited when picking species. As with any other set up, bigger is always better. Try to avoid tall tanks, mbuna tend to stay near the bottom of the tank and will not use the vertical space. A 55 or 75 gallon tank is a great beginner mbuna set up.

Equipment

For starters you will need a filter. Either a canister filter or a hang on back filter will do. It is best to over filter the tank since mbuna can be messy and are often overstocked. You will also need a heater. Mbuna prefer temperatures around 77-82°F (25-28°C). For a larger tank, you may want to purchase 2 heaters and place them at opposite ends of the tank for more even heating. You will also want to purchase a thermometer to keep track of the temperature in the tank.
A good liquid test kit is also recommended to help keep up with water parameters. Mbuna need a cycled tank with 0 ammonia, 0 nitrite and less than 40 nitrates. Here’s a link on cycling a tank. The lake that mbuna come from is very alkaline. Mbuna appreciate hard water with a high Ph of around 7.5-8.5. Though it must be noted that many mbuna are tank raised and can adapt to a wide range of Ph.
You will need some dechlorinator and buckets for water changes. It is generally recommended to do water changes at least once a week of at least 25%. You may need to change more water depending on your stocking and water parameters.

Decorating the Tank

Now the fun begins! Mbuna like to have a lot of caves and hiding places. Most people use rocks to create a more natural environment. A natural environment looks nice but if you really want to use plastic castles, PVC pipe of flower pots feel free. If you are using rocks here are some recommended types: Limestone, granite, slate or Texas holey rock. Rocks like lime stone and Texas holey rock will help buffer your water and help to keep a higher PH.
Next is substrate. Generally sand is preferred. Mbuna love to dig and sift through sand. Make sure the sand you choose doesn’t have sharp edges that could harm your mbuna. Types of sand that can be used are playsand, pool filter sand, and aragonite. Each type of sand has different qualities so be sure to do research to find the best one for you.

A Note on Plants

A planted tank is a very attractive set up that doesn’t always work with mbuna. Mbuna are herbivores and will eat most plants put in a tank or tear them up for the fun of it. Some people have luck with Java fern, onion plants and anubias. These plants can work but may not. If you want plants in your mbuna tank it may be better to stick to plastic ones.


Stocking

Depending on the size of your tank, it is best to pick out a few species of mbuna then keep 1 male per 4 females. This ratio keeps the male from harassing the females and keeps him busy enough to not bother tankmates. For example a 55 gallon can generally hold 3 species of mbuna with 5 of each species. A great beginner tank set up is a 55 gallon with 1m:4f Labidochromis caeruleus, 1m:4f Pseudotropheus Acei, and 1m:4f Iodotropheus sprengerae.

There are many species of mbuna out there. A good place to start is to go to your local fish store and see what you like. Be aware of tanks that are labeled “Assorted African Cichlids.” These tanks can contain hybrids or fish with bad genetics.

Here are some commonly seen Mbuna:


Labidochromis caeruleus(electric yellow cichlid, Yellow Lab)-This is a bright yellow colored mbuna with black on it’s fins. This fish is generally less aggressive than many other mbuna. Gets to be 4-5 inches long. Males and females have the same coloration.

Pseudotropheus Acei- A purple cichlid with yellow fins. There is a white finned morph as well. These mbuna are generally less aggressive and less territorial. They like to be in groups of their own kind. Gets to be 6-7 inches long. Males and females have the same coloration.

Iodotropheus sprengerae(Rusty cichlid)- These fish have a rusty red color with some purple along their sides. They are generally less aggressive than other mbuna. They get to be 3-4 inches long. Males and females have the same coloration.

Metriaclima estherae (red zebra)- These fish are a solid orange color. They also come in a orange blotched morph and in albino. Red zebras can be aggressive towards each other and tankmates. Get to be 5-6 inches long. Males tend to be more of a peach color with hints of blue on the fins. Females are a deep solid colored orange.

Metriaclima callainos(cobalt blue zebra)- This is a solid blue fish. These fish can be aggressive towards each other and tankmates. Sometimes albinos and blotched versions of this fish can be found. Get to be 5-6 inches long. Males and females look very similar. Males may have nicer coloring.

Metriaclima Greshakei(ice blue zebra)- Males are a light blue with a bright orange dorsal fin. Females are brown with some hints of orange on the dorsal fin. Sometimes these fish can be found in albino. These fish can be aggressive towards each other and tankmates. Get to be 5-6 inches long.

Pseudotropheus socolofi(powder blue cichlid)- A solid blue fish that sometimes has a black strip running along it’s dorsal fin. The also come in albino know as ‘Snow White Socolfi”. These fish can be very aggressive towards each other and tankmates. Do better when housed with other mbuna with similar temperaments. Get to be 4-5 inches long. Males and females have the same coloration.

Pseudotropheus demasoni- A blue fish with wide vertical black stripes. These fish are extremely aggressive towards one another, they can be very aggressive with tankmates. It is recommended to keep these fish in large colonies of 12+ to help spread out aggression. Get to be 3-4 inches long. Males and females have the same coloration.

Species that are NOT recommended


Pseudotropheus lombardoi(Kenyi)- These fish are VERY aggressive towards one another and tankmates. Males are yellow with faint vertical stripes and females are a powder blue with vertical black stripes.

Melanochromis auratus (golden cichlid)- One of the most aggressive commonly found. Females are yellow with black horizontal stripes. Males are the opposite, mostly black with yellow/tan stripes.

Metriaclima crabro(bumblebee cichlid)- A large and extremely aggressive fish. Males can be almost black. Females tend to be yellow with black vertical stripes.



Sadly these overly aggressive fish are usually very commonly sold in fish stores. Be sure to research any species for adding them to your tank.

Tankmates for Mbuna

Generally mbuna will not get along with most commonly available community fish. Mbuna tend to do best with other mbuna. Some Synodontis catfish can work. Synodontis petricola make nice tank mates. Some plecos can work but it is hit or miss. Mbuna are capable of killing tankmates.

Diet

Most mbuna are herbivores and have a very long digestive tract. Feeding them foods too high in protein can lead to a condition known as Malawi bloat. To avoid this it is recommended to avoid feeding your mbuna meaty foods. Instead stick to a low protein pellet, veggie flakes and fresh vegetables. Fasting the fish for a day can also help to prevent bloat.

Breeding

Mbuna are maternal mouth brooders. Males will court a female by showing his best colors and “shimming” for her. The female lays eggs and picks them up in her mouth. While she’s doing this the male will show his “egg spots” located on his anal fin. The female will try and pick these “eggs” up and the male will fertilize the eggs she is holding. Females carry the eggs for 21-40 days and will not eat during this time. Once the fry are big enough the female will release them to fend for themselves. Mbuna breed fairly easily when provided with clean water and a safe environment.


Conclusion

A Mbuna tank is quite a site. They are hardy fish and are relatively easy to care for. Mbuna are active and interesting and their behaviors might surprise you. All that is needed is some planning and preparation. When considering a mbuna tank it is recommended to ask around to get advise that can help you set up a successful tank.