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Mbuna Cichlids: Care Guide, Varieties & Lifespan (With Pictures)

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By Lindsey Stanton

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In between Tanzania, Malawi, and Mozambique lies Lake Malawi. It’s over 11,000 square miles and is home to around 850 species of cichlids. These species are broken down into groups, but the most common and easy to care for group are the Mbuna. Mbuna, pronounced “boo-nuh”, is a word from the Tonga people of Malawi that means “rockfish”. These fish are colorful and interesting, often found hiding in rocky caves. Here’s everything you need to know about the Mbuna cichlids.

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Quick Facts 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 Overview

Mbuna cichlids are a large group of cichlids that all come from Lake Malawi. These cichlids are variable in behavior, diet, compatibility, and color, but they are all rock-dwelling fish. This means that a rock-filled tank is necessary for their health and happiness. These fish may be hard on plants, uprooting them while scavenging or eating plant matter, so many plants are not a good match for them. Mbuna cichlids spend much of their time hiding in rock caves, and they can often be seen congregating under the rocks, peering out at you. They tend to be active fish, though, so it’s not uncommon for them to spend the whole day swimming around the tank.

Mbuna cichlid in freshwater aquarium
Image Credit: Arunee Rodloy, Shutterstock

Cichlids in general are known for their aggressive, territorial nature, so tankmates should be chosen carefully and it’s imperative to know the typical behavior of the species of Mbuna you are bringing home. Some Mbuna become more aggressive and territorial when brought home in pairs or when introduced to the tank in a group. Others do best when they are introduced to the tank one at a time, and some Mbuna cichlids are best kept alone or with compatible, non-cichlid tankmates.

How Much Do Mbuna Cichlids Cost?

Since Mbuna cichlids are so varied, their costs vary as well. However, most Mbuna will fall in the range of $5 up to $30 per fish. There are exceptions to this and some rare varieties of Mbuna may sell for more than this range. For Mbuna that do best in groups, some shops will provide a discount on purchasing a group of fish, helping keep the price within your budget.

Typical Behavior & Temperament

Most Mbuna cichlids are territorial, willing to defend what they perceive to be their territory against their tankmates, while others are downright aggressive. Mbuna are usually equally territorial against males or females, the exception to this being when a female is ready to breed. Choosing tankmates that won’t cross paths with the cichlids very often usually works out best, but another option is keeping a harem with one male and multiple females. Sometimes, overstocking Mbuna will decrease territorial behavior by limiting the space each fish has to “claim”.

Appearance & Varieties

There are hundreds of species of Mbuna cichlids, each with their own distinct looks or personalities. Here are a few of the more popular varieties of Mbuna cichlids.

Popular Mbuna Cichlid Varieties:
  • Bumblebee Cichlid: These cichlids are also sometimes called Hornet Cichlids and are named for their distinct black and yellow stripes. Their bodies are elongated, and they can reach almost 4 inches in length. These fish naturally feed on parasites that infect other fish. When they are young, they are brightly colored, but as they age, they begin to darken. They do retain the yellow coloration throughout their life, though.
  • Electric Yellow Cichlid: Known for their agreeable personalities, these fish are also sometimes called Yellow Labs. They will, however, show aggression toward other fish of similar shape and color as themselves, even if they aren’t Electric Yellow Cichlids. They are bright, electric yellow in coloration. As they age, they begin to take on some black stripes and bars, but they retain more yellow coloration throughout their life than the Bumblebee Cichlid.
  • Red Zebra Cichlid: These cichlids are actually more orange than red. Their stripes consist of darker orange coloration. Wild-type Red Zebra Cichlids are often seen in blue coloration as well, but this is more common in males than females. The males can reach up to 5 inches in length, while females stay smaller at around 4 inches. Like many other Mbuna cichlids, these fish do best when kept in harems.
  • Golden Cichlid: These cichlids are beautiful, but highly aggressive. They can reach up to 5 inches in length. They prefer to be kept in harems and are often too aggressive for community tanks. If you choose to attempt to keep a tank with multiple males, you will still end up with a harem because the males will fight to the death until there is only one left alive. These fish are not recommended for beginner fish keepers. Females and juveniles are yellow with some black striping, while males are usually the opposite, with dark purplish-black and yellow striping.

How to Take Care of Mbuna Cichlids

Habitat, Tank Conditions & Setup
  • Tank/Aquarium Size – For smaller Mbuna, like the Electric Yellow cichlid, a 30-gallon tank can suffice but a 40-gallon or larger is ideal. For larger Mbuna, like the Blue Dolphin Moorii, a much larger tank upwards of 55 gallons may be necessary.
  • Water Temperature & pH – The ideal temperature range for Mbuna cichlids is 77-84˚F, but they can comfortably live in water as cool as 73˚F. These fish prefer slightly alkaline water with a pH of 7.5-8.5. Alkaline water can be accomplished via the addition of crushed coral, baking soda, or commercial products.
  • Substrate – The best substrate for Mbuna cichlids is sand because it allows them to scavenge and burrow without injuring themselves on sharp edges. However, they can live in tanks with gravel and other rocky substrate as well. There are commercially available cichlid-specific substrates.
  • Plants – The best plants for Mbuna cichlid tanks are plants that can be attached to rock or driftwood, preventing them from being uprooted by the fish. Java fern, Anubias, and mosses are good options. Other plants, like Vallisneria and Cabomba, may be able to withstand the uprooting attempts by the fish. Plants that can be planted or floated, like Hornwort, are good options as well. Keep in mind that the alkalinity of the water limits the plants that will survive in the tank.
  • Lighting – Mbuna cichlids don’t have special lighting needs outside of a normal day/night cycle, which is necessary for health and immunity.
  • Filtration – Heavy filtration is necessary for Mbuna cichlids, especially when kept in overstocked tanks. Canister filters are a great option, especially when combined with biological filtration like a sponge filter.

Are Mbuna Cichlids Good Tank Mates?

Due to the territorial nature of Mbuna cichlids, introductions can be difficult. The easiest way to introduce new fish into an established community is to completely rearrange the rocks in your tank. This will throw off the defined territories the fish have already claimed, allowing the new fish to slip in unnoticed while the other fish rush to establish new territories. This may be necessary when introducing cichlids, other rock-dwelling fish, or other territorial fish, like red-tailed sharks.

If you’re introducing new tankmates that will likely have no interactions with the cichlids, like Plecostomus and Flying Foxes, then this will likely not be necessary. If you have successfully created planted areas in your cichlid tank, then fish like Giant Danios and Rainbowfish can be good matches as well.

In most situations, you should not pair Mbuna cichlids with other species of Mbuna cichlids. This can lead to hybridization, confusion in the tank, and territory disputes. Some exceptions to this are peacock cichlids and electric yellow cichlids.

What to Feed Your Mbuna Cichlids

Mbuna cichlids need primarily plant-based diets. They will eat algae, biofilm, and plant matter in the tank but should also be offered a commercial cichlid diet. To supplement and ensure they are receiving proper nutrition, these fish can also be fed fresh veggies, like romaine lettuce, zucchini, cucumber, carrots, spinach, and arugula. It’s best to blanch or steam veggies before feeding to your fish to make it easier for them to eat. They may have difficulty tearing pieces off of raw vegetables. It’s important to remove any uneaten fresh foods, like vegetables, within 24 hours to prevent water quality issues. Mbuna cichlids can also be offered protein-rich foods once or twice weekly. This can be bloodworms, brine shrimp, daphnia, and even fry.

Keeping Your Mbuna Cichlids Healthy

Mbuna cichlids are sensitive to water quality issues as well as abrupt changes in water parameters. If your water parameters are off, such as a low pH or temperature, you may need to slowly change this to the ideal levels over a couple of days. This will allow the cichlids to adapt to the changing water parameters. Changing these parameters abruptly can lead to shock and even death, even if the parameters are outside of the realm of comfortable or safe in the long run.

Providing a healthy tank with plenty of rocks, caves, and filtration will keep your cichlid healthy, especially when coupled with a low-stress environment with high water quality. Keep Mbuna cichlids with appropriate tankmates to reduce fighting and the risk of injury, helping them stay healthy and happy for years to come.


Breeding Mbuna cichlids is usually relatively easy. If kept in a proper, healthy tank environment, these fish will usually breed without assistance or prompting. Mbuna cichlids are what is called “maternal mouthbrooders”, which means that the mothers keep the eggs in their mouth. They will spawn like many other fish, but after the eggs have been fertilized, the mother will take the eggs in her mouth and carry them until they hatch. This keeps the eggs safe and allows for more fry to survive.

Once the eggs hatch, the mother will spit out the fry. This means that you may not even realize your Mbuna cichlids have bred until you begin seeing fry in the tank. Be aware, though, that the other Mbuna cichlids in the tank will eat the fry. You may need to remove them and put them into a safe fry tank. If you aren’t able to do this, make sure your tank has plenty of hiding places for the fry to shelter while they grow.


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Are Mbuna Cichlids Suitable For Your Aquarium?

Mbuna cichlids are colorful, interesting fish that can make a beautiful addition to an aquarium. However, their specific water alkalinity needs and preference for rocks over plants may make them unsuitable for most tanks. They are particular about water quality, so it’s best to ensure you have a fully cycled tank ready for them when you bring Mbuna cichlids home. Otherwise, you may end up with sick or dead fish.

With a proper, low-stress environment with appropriate water parameters, Mbuna cichlids can thrive. They can live for years with proper care, making them an investment of time and effort. Mbuna cichlids are a commitment that isn’t for everyone. They can be challenging, even for the most experienced fish keepers. However, once you get a handle on their preferred environment, these fish bring a bright saltwater look to your freshwater tank.

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Featured Image Credit: Arunee Rodloy, Shutterstock

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