Wednesday, December 20, 2006
Fundamentals of Keeping Mbunas in the Aquarium
Steven P. Parker
are a group of mouth-brooding rock dwelling fish that come from the
waters of Lake Malawi. Lake Malawi is a rift lake in Africa
surrounded by the countries of Mozambique, Tanzania, and Zambia. The
lake is also known as Lake Nyasa or Lake Nyssa to the locals who give
us the word "mbuna" which loosely translated means tasty
“rock fish" in the Tonga Language. These fish live in the
crevices of the rocky shores and feed off the algal mats covering the
rocks, as well as some of the invertebrates and insects they
encounter along the way. Wait, did I say "Tasty?" - Yes,
the local tribesman like to eat our prized Mbuna as a delicacy by
roasting them on sticks over a small fire! (So maybe it is really
"Mmmmm, Buna!”) The locals also eat many other fish we keep in
our tanks such as Tilapia, which comprise the largest part of their
diets after drying and sun-baking them along the shore. I've had
Tilapia Florentine and it is
tasty. In fact, Tilapia has been chosen as the food source most
suitable for a lunar colony because it contains high amounts of
protein and it thrives in crowded tank conditions. Lake Malawi was
formed by glaciers in the last great ice age leaving a long deep
craggy scar in the Earth. Roughly half of the lakes shoreline is
littered with thousands of 1ft-20ft boulders and its depth exceeds
2300feet. The lake is located in an area that is extremely diverse in
biotopes and geologically very active, and as a result, the area is
known to produce the highest number of species per square mile
anywhere on earth! The Rift Lakes and the surrounding area are home
to an estimated 1,200 species of Cichlids alone! The mbuna make up
about 1/3 to 1/4 of that total. There are over 600 species of Cichlid
in Lake Malawi with most being endemic, and over 230 species falling
into the Mbuna flock type. Most Mbuna can be found at depths of
3m-10m with about 26 species living at depths of up to 40m! Now that
we know a little something about where our fish come from and how
they live we can make informed choices on what our wet pets need to
be humanely and properly cared for, not to mention providing you
something interesting to tell your friends.
There are three stocking methods commonly used to house Mbuna. They go by various names, I call them; all-male, hodgepodge, and communal. I only recommend communal to beginners even though it may be harder to setup initially. All-male tanks have their place, and hodgepodge tanks are hopelessly troublesome.
All-Male tanks are fairly straight forward. You select only males of various species (usually in groups of 5+ at a time) and overstock the tank to about 1 mbuna for ever 3-4gallons of tank space you have. You definitely want to try to match the "toughness" of each species and not mix milder species with stronger species. These tanks require at least double normal filtration and frequent large scale water changes to maintain. Failing to maintain good water quality tends to cause mbuna to get aggressive with each other so you must be diligent about your maintenance habits.
Hodgepodge tanks are basically the same thing but housing any malawian fish male or female. They are thrown together in a tank and then you let them fight it out to see who stays and who has to go. A great example of this type of tank is the "Assorted Africans" tanks we see in many big box stores and many other dealers getting their fish from the fish farms in the south. These fish are analogous to puppymills churning out a huge supply driving down costs without any concern for genetics.
Communal style housing consists of ideally keeping species in "quads" of 1 male fish and 3 Female fish. Minimum should be 2 females per male as he can get pretty aggressive with her during mating and having more girls to spread his love to lessens his abuse on any particular one of them. More females for each male is always better, but after about 8 females the male may not show as much interest in the extras. A sub-dominant male can sometimes be housed when there are plenty of females to go around. A sub-dominant male will rarely challenge the dominant male after the initial 24-48hours. If the two males continue to challenge after that it is best to remove him.
aquarium is the most important part of your success with keeping
Mbuna. This means the bigger the better! However, while that is
always true, capacity
is less important than footprint. The footprint of a tank is
determined by measuring its Length in Inches and multiplying by its
width in inches. (L x W = footprint) On average, Mbuna males need
about 200 square inches of territory. Some species require a lot more
and some require a bit less, but 200in.2
is a good starting point. This means you want to maximize your
capacity in gallons to your footprint. Don't worry, I have done the
math for you on all the standard sizes already! This table will tell
you what you can do if
you choose species wisely. Generally I do not endorse trying to have
more than one species in any tank smaller than a 4ft tank preferably
a 55g. Distance between males also plays a role, as will aquascaping,
so this is only a guide based on the rest of my suggestions
not be used for anything more than a hospital tank.
choice, see above.
restricted species selection.
restricted species selection.
species, two mild tempered males could possibly fit.
12 inches tall, however 2-3 males of different species might work.
tank, only 12 inches tall, 2-3 males can work.
restricted species selection.
species, two mild tempered males could possibly fit.
males of different species can work.
males of different species can work.
species, two males can work.
length, 2-3 males can work.
tank can fit three males.
tank can fit three males.
tank, 2-3 males can work
ft tank, great species selection, can house 4-5 males.
males can work
tank, great selection, 5-6 males.
tank, nearly unlimited species selection, 6 males.
tank, 6-7 males.
ft tank, 9-10 males.
ft tank, 9-12 males.
* for each male you want to have between 2 and 5 females as well. You can sometimes add a second sub-dominant male if you have more than 6 or more females.
selecting your fish it is important to keep a few things in mind. You
should keep fish together that are not going to compete for the same
exact niche. You should also avoid similarly colored/striped fish
that may be seen as competition for females or territory. Mbuna are
Harem polygamists, which means that a single male will try to keep
and maintain a harem of females to mate with. It is easiest to select
a single fish that you “have to have” and then build tank mates
around that fish.
Experience has shown that the
ideal ratio is 3 or more Females per Male. Less than this ratio will
result with the male wanting to spawn again before the female(s) are
ready, he will then harass them, possibly to death. Some species of
cichlid are Dichromic, meaning sexually mature Males are colored
differently from Females and Juveniles, so buying a group of adults
in the correct ratio is fairly straight-forward. Monochromic species
are a problem, as the Males and the Females are colored similarly and
there are frequently no other easily observable signs to determine
sex. To get proper sex ratios with these species you can either buy a
sexed group, or buy 6-8 Juveniles and get rid of the extra males as
they grow up until you hopefully wind up with the proper ratio.
personally prefer to raise my own fish from juveniles and see them
grow and mature and eventually breed. You may not always get the best
fish in the spawn, but sometimes you're rewarded with a show quality
fish! Buying adults that have been sexed greatly simplifies things
and assures that an improper sex ratio isn’t the source of some
other problem you might have. Adults compete for a niche for
themselves soon after being introduced, and are often subjected to
aggression by the existing fish until they find their place in the
tank hierarchy. Juveniles on the other hand are often ignored by the
adults until they become sexually mature, and are generally much
easier to introduce to an established tank as a result.
Mbuna are either Omnivores or
they are Herbivores. Some of the herbivorous mbuna are very
intolerant of too much protein in their diet and will become diseased
if not fed properly. Omnivores are much more tolerant of certain
proteins (insects, inverts) but are still intolerant of animal
proteins. Omnivores need more protein to look their best, but can
survive on an amount that won't threaten most of the herbivores. Know
what your fish eats and try to match their diets for simplicity. If
you do mix them carefully understand how much and how often to feed
treats. Mixing isn't hard; it just takes some planning and fore
thought. A good staple food that can be fed to all types of diet is
New Life Spectrum (NLS) which justifies its higher cost. I believe
that a good healthy variety is the best diet, however so it is
important to ensure that treats are limited to only 1-3 times per
week. For the strict herbivores (P.Demasoni, Tropheus, etc.)select
foods that have less than 35%max protein, less than 7% fat, and at
least 5% fiber. For omnivores look for foods with less than 42%max
protein and less than 9% fat and at least 5% fiber.
are messy dirty fish, plain and simple. A good cleanup crew can ease
tank maintenance and keep your tank looking good longer, but they
will not replace you. Cichlid aggression limits what kinds
of fish we can keep for a cleaning crew, but most of the smaller
Synodontis catfish species are a good choice as are Loaches (genus
Botia). Shrimp and "lobsters" are not good choices
as they must molt and when they do, the Cichlids often shred them.
Most crayfish or "lobsters" hunt fish at night while the
fish sleep, they are not very good at it, but sometimes they get
lucky. I have had some limit experience with Freshwater clams &
mussels and they seem to work OK, but they have short life spans in
captivity. Its seems sourcing these species is seasonal and pricey.
For algae control I prefer the Rubber-lipped pleco (L-187a, L-187b)
best as it eats both brown and green algae in vast quantities without
leaving huge ropey strings of feces everywhere. Also good for algae
control are Bristle-nosed plecos (Ancistrus sp.) which are a
very close second for algae eating champ. For hair algae, the Flying
Fox is an excellent choice, although they are getting harder to find
today. I don't recommend the Gold Algae eater, the Siamese Algae
eater, or the Chinese Algae eater with Cichlids.
are a few non-mbuna that can tolerate mbuna for tank mates, although
nearly all are better off in their own tank. Aulonocara
Jacobfreibergi (Lemon Jake) is
the one “Peacock” that seems to hold up. Haplochromines
have a wider choice; Copadichromis
Borleyi, Cyrtocara Moorii, and
are a few examples. Generally the larger "rugged" fish can
hold up, while fish similar in size to the Mbuna seem to have a hard
time surviving let alone thriving.
Mbuna display some very unusual
behaviors that most other families of fish do not. They have
personalities that is in many ways similar to most dogs. They will
rush up to the glass to greet you when you enter the room or approach
the tank, they know their owner and respond differently to strangers,
they are highly social and form a hierarchy amongst the group with a
“leader” (or “Tank Boss”) and different ranks of
sub-dominance for the entire group. For Example: You might have a
tank boss that prevents or interferes with another species mating
attempts, while that sub-dominant fish may then harass an even lower
ranked fish out of frustration.
Males setup a
feeding territory and a breeding territory. In the wild a males
feeding territory can be up to a 22m diameter sphere against
males (like males), however they will share some of this territory
with other heterospecific
males (unlike males) though not simultaneously. Their breeding
territory is usually closer to an 16-20” sphere centered around a
cave or crevice that is aggressively defended against both
heterospecific and conspecific males. Each species is different of
course, so the exact sizes of territories varies greatly. These are
things to keep in mind when setting up an mbuna tank or planning your
community. Females either feed independently or in schools in
undefended areas. Males will allow females of his own species to
graze in his territory when the females are likely to spawn with them
and aggressively chased off when not.
often overcrowded into tanks as a method of aggression management.
It is very effective when done properly, and makes for a full tank
appearance. It is not a good idea to plan for overcrowding as is
often suggested however. The better plan is a well organized
community that you overcrowd only as a response to any aggression
problems that may arise in your tank as your fish mature.
Overcrowded tanks do look nice as displays and can save you headaches
with aggression management, just do so wisely. A good plan to
overstock when an aggression problem does arise with your initial
stock plan would be to add an extra female (or two) for each
aggressive male in the tank. This is a better method of overstocking
than attempting to introduce a new species. Another option that can
work in larger tanks is the addition of a second male. The second
male should only be introduced when you have 6-8 females for the
alpha male already and he is still aggressive. The new male is
sacrificial for the females and other tank mates and will suffer
abuse from the alpha male. Keep watch on him in case the abuse gets
too severe, but often he will just stay submissive and shows battle
scars while being the new source of the aggressive alpha males
attentions. I should note that only 6ft and larger tanks are
probably large enough for this to work permanently.
are aggressive fish! You will have fights, fin nipping and even some
all out guns blazing battles, expect it. Fish being excluded to an
upper corner of the tank or only allowed to hide behind a filter tube
however is a sign of an aggression problem. This is why as a cichlid
owner it is almost a necessity to have a hospital tank ready at a
moments notice. When mbuna decide to they want another fish out,
they will kill it quickly so do not hesitate to pull abused fish!
At first, it is difficult to know how bad injuries on these fish are
before they should be considered severe. I cannot possibly cover all
the scenarios you'll run into so to keep it simple remember, If you
see bare flesh, blood, jaw or eye injury it is safer to
pull them than ignore the problem even a few hours. Homicide can
happen in 1-2 hours with these animals in severe cases. There are
many ways of managing the various unwanted behaviors that our wet
pets display. First is introducing all new fish properly to the tank.
You should always add Cichlids in groups of 4 or more so that
none of the new arrivals can be singled out, but it doesn't always
work out this way. Since all the fish in the tank already have
territory marked out, the new guy won't be able to establish himself
unless it is a very strong fish and then only after many battles. If
you rearrange the tank layout before you add new fish you will break
up the existing territories and give the new fish a chance to settle
into its new environment. Leave the tank lights off for the day, if
possible leave the tank furnishings out until the next day as well. A
24 hour period will give the newest fish time to recover and then
when the furnishings are returned it will quickly seek out its own
space having the same advantages the previous fish have. The second
way that aggression occurs is from a poor selection of tank mates or
an improper sex ratio, planning your tank mates well and resisting
impulse buys can make things much easier for you. Having too many
males or not enough girls will increase aggression levels. Fish
seeking to spawn but having no partner can become obsessive over a
territory, or even go on a homicidal rampage! A third way aggression
can arise is from using too small of a tank for a given species
forcing it to claim the entire tank, this typically happens just
after the fish become sexually active. Always plan your tank for
when your fish are full grown sexually mature adults! Yet another
way aggression happens is from an improper diet. A good nutritious
diet is fundamental to your fishes happiness so make sure your food
matches the diet of your fish. Remember Mbuna are aggressive; try to
learn the difference between aggressive but harmless display and
signs of impending trouble. To do this you must watch your fish for
several minutes each day. I find a good time is right after feeding
as they will all be out and give you a good opportunity to do a head
count and check for injuries. I also find 10-20 mins right after
coming home from work is a great stress reliever. You may even find
yourself enjoying the antics of your fish while sitting there
relaxing. Feeding smaller amounts 2-4 times a day can help lower
aggression levels if you've been feeding less frequently.
hyper fast duels are often fought between two males, usually
conspecifics. The fish are staging and fighting for rank within the
tank hierarchy. If the two combatants are of the same species this
battle will establish who gets the right to mate with all the gravid
females (of the same species) in the tank. Circle jousting is often
accompanied by lip-locking. This is a male behavior.
is when two fish bite onto the jaws of each other and have a “pushing
match” until one backs down and runs away. Often the loser will
lose his dominant coloring for a little while. This is usually a male
behavior though rarely females will engage in it with each other.
This is the ultimate test of a dominant males strength, and will
secure a higher rank for the winner.
is when two fish form a “T” to each other. Females often engage
in this activity as well as males. It can be part of a mating ritual
if between a male and his partner, but more often it appears to be a
show of dominance/subservience similar to bowing in Japan. If the
dominant fish isn't satisfied with the subservient fish this may
escalate into a chase or a joust.
is a display of slow circling and inflating the buccal cavity. The
Buccal sac is just below the fishes jaw and ahead of its gills.
Females will inflate this area to appear larger during staging and
dominance displays. This behavior seems to be rarely displayed by
males. It is similar to the males version of circle jousting.
(or scratching) is when you observe your fish rubbing themselves
against rocks or the substrate. This behavior usually is a sign of
external parasite in most tropical fish, but Cichlids do this
infrequently. If, however your fish are doing this constantly then is
is a sign of a water quality problem. Usually the pH or hardness has
undergone a significant change and the fish are reacting to it.
Obviously this is not healthy for your fish so it is important that
your new water is matched properly to tank conditions, especially if
your changing more than 30% of the tank volume.
is another behavior that isn't observed in other fish that is fairly
common among Cichlids. The fish will open its mouth to its widest
point and “stretch out” it fins. It is unknown why they do this,
perhaps to keep jaw muscles flexible.
are a few ways you can reduce aggression in your tank that have
varying degrees of success from tank to tank. First, increasing the
frequency of feeding your fish (Not amount, less food more often) can
have a positive effect on aggressive fish. Temperatures below 75F
can also reduce aggression, but this will also have a negative effect
on spawning as well.
are fairly easy to keep by most standards. Cichlids are hardy fish
and very resilient to disease as long as their water conditions are
good. There are a few things we must keep in mind for our fish’s
health and happiness.
fall into two groups of diets, Herbivores and Omnivores. Some
herbivorous mbuna such as P.
extremely sensitive to the amount of protein in their diets and will
quickly get Bloat and die. Bloat is a catchall phrase for systemic
viral intestinal infections or internal parasitic infections and
often results in the death of the victim. All herbivorous fish are
best fed on a high vegetable based food that has protein contents
under 35% minimum. Omnivores should not be fed food with more than
42% minimum protein content. There are many very good foods on the
market and there are many more bad ones. Don't just look at the
numbers on the labels, but also the order of the contents as well. I
feed New Life Spectrum Cichlid Formula and New Life Spectrum Thera A+
nearly exclusively to my mbuna and they have not gotten bloat since I
made the switch. I do occasionally feed a treat of frozen foods to my
fish to help elicit spawning or just to give variety, but I swear by
the NLS. It’s not the only food I use for all my Cichlids; I also
use Ken's Premium Veggie Flake for my stricter herbivores which is
really fantastic stuff. I also like HBH Cichlid Attack for my
Carnivores. When it comes to mixed diet mbuna I recommend NLS!
Feeding a good healthy food with good roughage can help prevent your
fish from contracting bloat. Garlic is a natural anti-parasitic and
can also help protect your fish from contracting internal parasites.
and healthy mbuna spawn, a lot! Most mbuna spawn about every 45-60
days year 'round with spawns averaging around 25-30, but can reach
45+!!! Most hobbyists enjoy their spawning mbuna at first, and then
they get tired of the constant aggression associated with spawning
and want to know how to stop them! How do you get cichlid fry? Just
add Cichlids and clean water! OK, that isn't completely true,
however after 25+ years of experience with these fish I can assure
you that for all purposes it is.
All Mbuna spawn in the same
basic manner. The Male will build a breeding site in the substrate
creating a bowl shape to help keep the eggs in the center during
spawning. The male will swim over to the female when he sees her and
vibrates (Appears electrocuted, aka the Shimmy Shimmy Shake) his body
in front of her forming a T with her. The male will then try to lead
the female back to the breeding site (or any other convenient place
if she's willing) and once he gets her to the site, he goes back to
the vibrations and lays his anal fin (w/ egg spots) on the spawning
site. The Female will then circle around and deposit 1-4 eggs which
she circles around and quickly picks up into her mouth. The male then
begins to vibrate again and the female attracted to the dummy egg
spots on his anal fin will mouth near the males vent as he releases
his milt fertilizing the eggs in her mouth. The couple will then
continue like this circling and fertilizing until the female is
spent. The Male will generally chase her off aggressively once she
stops, then will begin looking for a new willing partner. Males also
"Joust" over breeding grounds and access to females by
Lip-locking each other, and engaging in circling duels. Females can
aggressively fight for access to the Alpha male as well as fight over
good caves for rearing fry in. Females usually puff up their throats
inflating their buccal pouches and form a 'T' but rarely Lip-lock and
only infrequently get into circling duels.
have a female holding! Excitement! Joy! Success! That is usually our
reactions the first few times we have spawns. Now is the time to ask
yourself what you are going to do with your fry if they all survive
and grow. Are you prepared with another tank to isolate the holding
female and eventually raise the fry in? Once you raise the fry what
will you do with them? A few fish is not too hard to be rid of, but
25-40 is a problem. If you’re not prepared to spend the months
needed to raise the fry, or you don't have any place to put them once
they do grow up, then it is best to let the female spit in the main
tank. Most of the fry will get eaten by other fish when spit into a
closed cramped environment like the typical home aquarium, and the
few that do survive often become personal underdog favorites. One of
the things you will want to know if you do decide to raise the fry is
who the parents are. I realize that you can't always be sure of this,
but you ideally want to see signs of attempted breeding and later a
holding female to prevent a growing problem in the cichlid trade,
are many arguments about hybrids in the cichlid trade, but my view is
that they are bad long-term for us hobbyists and should they be
avoided and even destroyed. I know that is a harsh view, but hybrids
have highly unpredictable behaviors and their offspring often exhibit
different behaviors from the parents making these fish a nightmare
for most aquarists to keep with other fish. Any spawn from two fish
not of the same species AND
is considered to be a hybrid. Some people like to create hybrids as a
way to make money, or they have dreams of creating Franken fish, or
perhaps honest but misguided attempts at "improving" a
certain variety. Hybrids are generally frowned upon in the cichlid
community much like "mutts" are in the Dog Show world. If
you do create a hybrid and you lack the heart to euthanize them, then
please keep them in your own tanks and do not let any of them out of
your possession. Many people have sold hybrids to pet stores which
are then resold as purebred fish leaving the person who receives them
with a "mutt" instead of the Pure specimen he paid for.
Unlike the dog world, there are no certified lineage papers for fish.
The problem is growing and already at least one species (L.
Caeruleus) is hard to find pure
lines of anymore! There are also many health reasons why hybrids
should be discouraged, so for the good of all Cichlidom never give,
sell, or trade hybrids to anyone else. If you like your resulting
crossed fry and wish to raise them amongst your own tank(s), then go
ahead and enjoy them! Please just
don't let them out of your tank(s)!
is an attempt to isolate specific trait(s) in a species and breed
only those fish that display those traits back to a parent or another
fish with those qualities. Line breeding is certainly mankind
manipulating a species for monetary gain, but it doesn't usually
destroy the species. (Although it can weaken it significantly. -[sic]
To isolate the holding female
and rear the fry you will need at least a 10g tank, a quality heater
(cheapies vary too much for fry), and some form of filtration. You
can use a bigger tank, or different filtration if you have them
available, the bigger the better (again). Substrate is optional, and
actually makes it harder to keep the tank clean. A couple hiding
spots so the female can feel secure are advised, preferably with the
opening toward the back of the tank. My recommendation is a good
sponge filter with an air pump! For fry, the sponge filter provides a
large surface area for them to feed off of, and the low water
movement won't splash the fry around in the tank. Sponge filters are
not good mechanical filters, but the mother won eat while she is
holding fry so you don't feed her producing less waste. Once you have
fry, they will eat powdered flake and baby brine shrimp, so it won't
matter if the sponge filter isn't very good at mechanical. I also
like sponge filters because they are inexpensive and last nearly
female has held for 24-28 days and she hasn't spit her fry. You can
remove them yourself so she can start recovering if you want. One
method is to pry her lower jaw open with your fingernail while
holding her upside down over the holding tank and rubbing her throat
or shaking the fry out. This works, but can be very stressful to the
fish and can even injure the female. (I know of an incident of death
too) I use a technique I developed back in the late eighties after
reading about using a turkey baster method to strip fry of small
females. I used a kitchen funnel, a white plastic 3" funnel that
has an opening of roughly 3/16" in diameter. I place the Female
head down in the funnel and with one finger I hold her tail against
the side of the funnel, then I pour tank water into the funnel while
holding it over the tank (or a container). I wait until the female
begins to gasp her gills before pouring, and then I fill the funnel
almost to the top and let it back flush her gills. Soon you will see
the fry coming out the funnel end and into the tank. Keep pouring
until the stream of fry ends, and then check her mouth by carefully
pulling the jaw down with a fingernail or toothpick. (Or you can wait
for her to open up during a gasp, but she won't open if she still has
any fry left in there). Mbuna fry are quite large at release, about
3/16" long and 1/8" inch wide.
Care & Rearing:
fry are generally very easy to rear and they are very resilient fish
like their parents. Providing them with extremely clean conditions is
needed to prevent stunting or disease, so twice-weekly water changes
of 15% are recommended on fry tanks. The fry can eat powdered flake
food and Baby Brine Shrimp for the first week and then I switch to
just crushed Flake and New Life Spectrum Growth Formula which comes
in 0.5mm pellets so the fry can swallow them. Depending on the
species, fry can take from 3 months to 9 months to reach the 1.5"
size range which is about as small as the fry can be and survive
shipping them off to another owner / LFS. In many species 1.5"
is when the juveniles start to reach sexual maturity and by 2"
most of the fish will be mature and you will need to separate them.
At around 3/4" in size I prefer to transfer my fry to grow out
tanks which are larger than the fry tank. I change water weekly on
grow outs tanks, but I increase size to 50% since the juveniles can
handle large changes better than fry.
wanted to say thanks to a few people who have lent me support or
taught me valuable lessons. First to my Dad for keeping a 10g fish
tank that got me started, and bought my 20g when I was aged 12. To my
roommates for putting up with all those tanks and spills. To my Wife
who against all her better judgment allows me to flood the basement
on a regular basis. To my Son for trying so hard to learn the Latin
names and his boundless enthusiasm at feeding time. Lastly to CichlidForums who's friendships and knowledge has been a guiding hand.