- Introduction to mbuna species


Introduction to mbuna species

Author: Yeo-Hoon Bae
Last Updated: Nov 13, 2009

If you are considering this, most likely you have already owned an aquarium or two (or more!) and kept several species successfully. Now you want to get into something a bit more exciting and colorful. So what does it take to raise (and possibly breed) mbuna species?


All mbuna species come from Lake Malawi in Africa. Mbuna species are popular because they often feature bright colors and are very active. People consider mbuna to be one of the most colorful species outside of marine domain.

Water in this lake is hard and pH is high. But that doesn't mean you have to change your water chemistry to match the native condition. If your pH is above 7.5, KH above 8 and GH above 8, you are going to be fine. Better to not mess with water chemistry and your life will be much much easier in the future. (see Is this fish good for my tap water?)

Although there are many species of mbuna to choose from, you will need to limit your choices if you are new to mbuna. Many mbuna species are very aggressive and you will need experiences and large tanks to keep more aggressive species.

Mbuna tanks are often overstocked. This is intentional. Due to alpha male (the largest male in the tank of that species) aggression, you will need 4 or 5 others of the same species to spread aggression. If you have only 1 male and 1 female (or even worse 1 smaller male), the lesser one will likely to die due to stress caused by alpha male's aggression. And due to overstocking, you will need good water filtration and larger water changes. For a 55g tank, you should go for a filter rated for at least 100g and 40% water change weekly should be considered minimum. You will also need lots of places to hide. Lots and lots of large rocks is the best way and this mimics their native environment.

Beginner species

The following species are considered the most peaceful of all mbuna species and can be raised by beginners. The minimum tank size should have 36x12 footprint. 48x12 is much better if you can afford it.

  • Labidochromis Caeruleus (Yellow Lab) - These guys are yellow with black fins. Avoid the ones with visible stripes on their body or whiter in color. Not aggressive.

  • Pseudotropheus Acei - Their body starts off dark blue but as they mature, they will show more bright blue colors and yellow fins. Very active but peaceful. They are not afraid of humans - you can hand feed these guys.

  • Iodotropheus Sprengerae - Sort of brownish/purplish in color. Also not aggressive.

  • Pseudotropheus Saulosi - When juvernile, they are yellow. Dominant males will change their color as they mature. When fully mature, they will turn blue with darker stripes. Some people like to keep Saulosi-only tank because they will show both yellow and blue colorings.

  • You can choose 2 species from the above for 36x12 tank or 3 species for 48x12 tank. If you want lower maintenance tank, choose 2 species for 48x12 tank. With lower bioload, you don't have to change water as much.

    Ideally, you will purchase 7 or 8 of each juverniles. As they grow older, you will be able to tell the alpha male (most dominant) and the rest. All of them will reach approx. 3 - 4 inches when they are fully grown up. The goal is to keep 1 male and 3 or 4 females. Less dominant males will get beat up by the alpha male so you should remove them as they mature in this tank.

    These are the general rules you should follow for all mbuna species. The above mentioned species are more foregiving, meaning they show less aggression against each other so even if you don't nail 1:4 (M:F) ratio at the end, you will probably be ok. Still, be prepared to remove less dominant male at any time in case it gets out of control.


    Mbuna are active and they will eat a lot. But don't feed them too much. Once per day, enough food for them to complete feeding in less than 1 minute is plenty. I tend to "fast" them once per week - i.e. no food. Some mbuna cannot handle too much protein in their diet. For those species, spirulnana based diet is highly recommended. For the above mentioned species, you can pretty much feed any food. I like to feed them New Life Spectrum pellettes and also Spirulana flakes. They will also eat blanched vegetables.

    A big NO NO

    The following species are commonly found in aquarium stores:

  • Melanochromis Auratus
  • Pseudotropheus Lombardoi (Kenyi)
  • Pseudotropheus Demasoni

  • The above are popular because they do look attractive. Unfortunately, they are amongst the most aggressive mbuna species known. The dominant male will likely to kill the rest if you don't know what you are doing. They are going to be fine for the 6 months then over night, you are going to loose most of the fishes in the tank! Be warned!


    All mbuna are mouth brooders. Once eggs are layed, eggs are fertilized and the female will catch them in her mouth. She will keep the eggs in her mouth for approx. 3 weeks. During this time, you will see the female body slim down significantly - don't worry this is normal. Near the end of 3rd week, she will "spit" frys out of her mouth. By then, frys are free swimming, and will eat flake powders and hatched brine shrimps. Common technique is to catch the female at the end of 2nd week and place her is a separate 5 - 10g tank. Once she spits, move her back to the main tank. This way, most of the frys will survive. Raising frys are relatively easy as they are already quite big (almost 1/2 inch) by the time female splits them out. You can raise them in your small tank until they hit about 1 inch. Then they should be moved to a much larger tank.

    Bottom Feeders

    You can have bottom feeders co-exist with mbuna species. The most recommeneded choices are Synodontis Petricola and Synodontis Multipunctatus. Both of these species stay below 6 inches in size and they will be able to peacefully co-exist with mbuna species. Bristlenose Plecos can also co-exist as well. Don't add Corydoras Catfish in mbuna tank!

    You can further discuss or leave suggestions in this forum.

    Try out our Intellegent Aquarium Stocking Calculator.