Mbuna Species: Everything You Need To Know About This African Cichlid




Mbuna Species

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Mbuna cichlids are a species of African cichlids that come in a variety of bright colors. These beautiful cichlids are hardy fish that add a flash of color to your aquarium.

This care guide will tell you everything you need to know about owning a Mbuna cichlid.

Mbuna Species Information

Mbuna Species Info
Common NamesMbuna Cichlid, Malawi Cichlids
Minimum Tank Size30 gallons per cichlid
Number of Species200+
LifespanVaries by species, but up to 10 years for most
DietPrimarily an Herbivore
Water temperature74° to 82°F
pH levelpH 7.5-8.5
Care LevelModerate to Difficult

Mbuna Origins

Mbuna cichlids originate from Lake Malawi in Eastern Africa. In their native territory, their common name is “mbuna,” meaning “rockfish” in the native African language. They were given this name because they usually live in rocky habitats.

Mbuna’s Natural Habitat

In nature, Mbunas live in the 9th largest lake in the world, Lake Malawi, which is 50 miles wide and 360 miles long.

Lake Malawi was created when the African tectonic plate split in two, making two large, separate valleys. The Mbunas live on the rocky shores of the lake. The rocks provide the mbunas with hiding places and room to spawn.

What Do Mbuna Cichlids Look Like?

You might wonder what a mbuna cichlid looks like and how can you tell them apart. There are over 200 species of mbuna cichlids.

Mbunas are typically very colorful with horizontal stripes or vertical bars. They have flat faces, oval bodies, and pointed snouts.

They are smaller than other African cichlids. Their adult size typically ranges from 3-6 inches in size.

What Are Some Popular Types of Mbuna Cichlids?

There are over 200 species of mbuna cichlids, but which are some of the most popular?

Bumblebee Cichlid

Bumblebee Cichlid

Bumblebee cichlids, also known as hornet cichlids, have characteristic black and yellow vertical banding with long bodies. They are brightly colored when young and tend to darken with age. Bumblebee cichlids feed on parasites that can infect other fish.

Electric Yellow Cichlid

Electric Yellow Cichlid

Electric yellow cichlids have a peaceful personality and are therefore known as “yellow lab cichlid.” They will show aggression but only towards fish that are similar in shape and color to themselves. They are a bright yellow color, and as they get older, black stripes and bars appear.

Red Zebra Cichlid

Red Zebra Cichlid

The Red Zebra cichlids are usually more orange than red, with darker stripes that are also orange. Wild Red Zebra cichlids are often blue, but this color is more common in males.

Golden Cichlid

Golden Cichlid

Golden Cichlids are highly aggressive, often too aggressive for a community cichlid tank.

These cichlids are not recommended for beginner fish keepers due to their aggressive nature. Females and juveniles are yellow in color with black stripes, and males are usually dark purple to black with yellow vertical stripes.

Mbuna Cichlid Diet

Mbunas typically eat surface growth on the rocks where they live. They have a flat face because they use it to scrape strands of algae off the surface of the rocks. They also traditionally feed on zooplankton.

When food is scarce in the wild, they will also eat insect larvae, eggs, fry, and invertebrates. A diet of algae, protein, and vegetables is ideal for a healthy mbuna.

In the wild, cichlids feed almost continuously. Meat is not a great choice for feeding your cichlid as it is not easy for them to digest. It is best to give plant-based foods that are high in protein.

They can even be fed fresh veggies such as romaine lettuce, cucumber, carrots, spinach, etc., but make sure to remove any uneaten fresh vegetables within a day to prevent issues with water quality.

Mbuna Life Cycle

The Mbuna life cycle can be a fascinating process. Once the Mbuna eggs are laid and hatch, the fry depends on their parents to provide for their basic needs.

Mbunas usually approach sexual maturity around six months of age. Males and females will develop breeding tubercles on their heads when they reach maturity, although the females’ tubercles are less visible. Males use these tubercles to attract mates.

Life Expectancy of African Cichlids

The Cichlidae family is so large that it is difficult to give a specific lifespan. Some species tend to live longer than others. Below is a list of the lifespan of several types of African cichlids.

Common NameScientific NameLifespan (with proper care)
Blue Peacock CichlidAulonocara nyassae10-12 years
Blue Johanni CichlidPseudotropheus johannii10 years
Yellow-Tail Acei CichlidPseudotropheus Acei8 years
MaylandiaMaylandia aurora6-10 years
Bumblebee CichlidPseudotropheus crabro10 years
Cobalt Blue Zebra CichlidMetriaclima callainos10 years
Electric Yellow CichlidLabidochromis caeruleus6-10 years

How Do You Extend Your Cichlid’s Lifespan?

Unfortunately, there’s no magic trick to make your fish live forever, but there are a few tips you can use to keep your aquarium fish healthy and ensure they live a long and happy life.

Feed a Healthy Diet

Cichlids can be gluttonous eaters because they will keep eating even when they are full and make themselves sick.

The best option is to feed them 3 to 4 small meals a day. This will also help to manage their aggression with other tank mates over available resources.

Feeding your fish enough vitamin A can prevent several conditions, such as dropsy, decreased growth, vision issues, and anemia. Making sure your fish gets enough vitamin C can prevent eye bleeding, a deformed spine, and over-pigmentation.

Besides regular fish feed like pellets, giving your cichlid veggies and frozen treats like mealworms is best.

Keep Track of Water Temperature

African cichlids cannot survive in cold water because they are tropical fish. African cichlids’ water temperature should be between 74- and 82 degrees Fahrenheit. When the water temperature falls outside this range, the cichlid will become fatigued, and their immune system will lower and leave them open to illness.

In reverse, high temperatures can cause the fish to be hyperactive and unable to take in oxygen from the water, which will cause them to hyperventilate eventually.

Maintain Ideal Water Conditions

Keeping your mbuna tank in the correct water chemistry settings is essential to having healthy mbuna cichlids. Contaminated water is the most common reason for early cichlid death. Cichlids are also messy eaters, so changing water often is essential.

Keep the ammonia and nitrite levels at 0 and nitrate levels lower than 20 ppm for your cichlid tank. Ammonia spikes can cause lethargy, jagged fins, and bleeding gills. Nitrite spikes can lead to nitrate poisoning, which causes brown gills, heavy breathing, and rapid gill movement.

Mbunas prefer slightly alkaline water, with the ideal PH range being 7.5 to 8.5. These fish do not do well in acidic water conditions. To keep ideal conditions in your mbuna tank, you can use cichlid salts, lime-based decor, and filter media to keep the mineral concentration high and maintain PH.

To keep your aquarium healthy, it is recommended to change 25% of the water weekly. Change the filter as required based on the filter type.

Provide a Stress-Free Environment

Stress causes fish to produce excess cortisol, suppressing their appetite and eventually leading to lower immunity and, therefore, disease. Even though cichlids are very hard, they can also stress easily. Stress is usually caused by substandard water conditions, diet issues, aggression from other tankmates, lack of places to hide, etc.

Here are some signs of stress in cichlids:

  • Increased hiding
  • Scurrying around the tank
  • Irregular swimming
  • Gasping for air
  • Scraping themselves against rocks

If your fish shows any of these signs, there is something wrong in your tank environment. The best thing to do is to experiment until you can narrow down what is causing your fish stress and fix the issue.

Ideal Tank Size and Setup

When setting up a mbuna tank, there are a few vital habitat requirements to get right. As a general rule, you should have at least 30 gallons of water per fish, so if you plan on having a school of mbuna, you will need a larger aquarium.

Another important factor is to provide plenty of rocks and caves to provide hiding places. Mbunas can be very territorial and aggressive fish and will lay claim to their own territory, so a larger tank is essential if you’re looking to keep many mbunas at once.

When creating your tank environment, it is best to make it similar to their native lake habitat, which is deep and wide. Live plants aren’t ideal unless you have a small number of cichlids and want to use them for hiding places.

Mbunas also prefer a high dissolved oxygen level in the water, which can be provided with an air pump.

Mbuna Cichlid Anger Management

Mbunas are a particularly aggressive species of African cichlid. For a dominant male mbuna that is surrounded by other males and has to compete for resources, it usually results in a typical male response, a fish fight.

This can be a problem in a community tank that isn’t as big as its natural environment, so anger management can easily become a problem. Rival males and non-sexual females are a normal part of the mbuna species.

One factor to consider in managing aggression in cichlids is having rocks in your tank. Rocks give males territory to call their own for breeding, feeding, etc. Piles of rocks can provide shelter for females and fry away from an aggressive cichlid male.

The next factor is keeping many cichlids in your tank, usually around 20-plus fish. Raising a large number of similarly sized and aged cichlids can manage aggression due to the crowded environment.

Outnumbering males by two females will also help in managing aggression. Aggression in cichlids typically results from having another male of the same size and type of cichlid.

Ideal Tankmates for Mbunas

Mbunas are aggressive fish, so they can’t be paired with just anyone. When choosing other aquarium fish to place with your Mbuna, it’s best to look for fish that are larger bottom dwellers, fast schooling fish, or fish from the same water conditions or area. Avoid fish with different water needs, small, peaceful, or slow-swimming fish.

Ideal tank mates for mbunas include plecos, other types of cichlids, especially from the same native habitat, zebra loch, giant danios, Siamese algae eaters, flying fox fish, etc.

Which Mbuna Cichlid Is the Least Aggressive?

The least aggressive species of Mbuna cichlids is the Electric Yellow Lab Cichlid. As their name suggests, they are very agreeable, just like a yellow lab. They are very popular and ideal for beginner fish keepers. They also do well in community mbuna tanks.

Can You Have Both Mbuna and Malawi Cichlids in Your Tank?

Mbuna Cichlids and Malawi cichlids come from the same lake. As the name suggests, Malawi cichlids come from Lake Malawi. Due to their origin, they have the same water conditions, which makes pairing them together ideal, but not all mbuna and Malawi cichlids can be paired together.

It is important not to keep two aggressive species together. The only potential downside is crossbreeding of these species, which can be unhealthy for fry.

Breeding Mbuna Cichlids

Mbunas have an interesting breeding process. All mbuna species have a similar way of breeding and are categorized as maternal mouthbrooders. Mbunas lay eggs, and then the female collects them in her mouth. The eggs then incubate and hatch in the mouth of the female fish.

Breeding mbunas in a tank environment is fairly simple. Ensure that the tank requirements are being met. Once the conditions are ideal, putting a mature male and female into the tank will encourage breeding. Keeping one male with 2-3 females is typically a good ratio.

To encourage breeding, it is also important not to overfeed. Mbunas are greedy eaters, and if they become too large for the tank, it will be more difficult to maintain a crowded tank environment, raising the aggression level. Fights make the fish stressed and less likely to breed. It is important for your tank to be crowded enough but not overcrowded.

Common Cichlid Diseases

Cichlids, like any freshwater fish, are prone to several diseases. In a community tank setting, it is a certainty that your fish will become ill at one time or another. The best defense is keeping the water quality in your tank optimal.

For cichlids, there are a few specific diseases to watch out for. Here are some of the most common diseases and how to cure them.

Swim Bladder Disease

The swim bladder is a sac in the belly of the fish that helps them to float. When a cichlid has swim bladder disease, it becomes difficult for them to stay underwater.

Swim bladder disease can be caused by injury, secondary disease, or poor nutrition.

To treat swim bladder disease, you must treat the underlying issue. If the issue is a poor diet, feed your fish a balanced diet.

Malawi Bloat

Malawi bloat is very common among African cichlids. This disease causes swelling in the belly, quick breathing, laying on the bottom of the tank, and loss of appetite. Malawi bloat can lead to liver and kidney damage.

Unfortunately, the cause of this disease is thought to be a parasite in the intestine of the cichlid, but this is not proven. A water change and treatment with Metronidazole are necessary to treat this disease.


Tuberculosis is very contagious and fatal and can even be transmitted to humans through contact with open wounds.

The symptoms of tuberculosis are appetite loss, white splotches on the skin, a sunken belly, and lethargy.

To treat this disease, all other fish must be removed from the tank and treated with Melafix. The original tank then must be cleaned.

Cotton Wool Disease

Cotton wool disease displays itself as fuzzy white growths on the head, fins, and scales, hence the name cotton wool.

This disease is caused by a fungus, which grows when uneaten food and other debris build up in the tank.

The treatment for this disease is antifungal medication or salt baths.

Hexamita: Hole in the Head

This disease is very common in freshwater fish but especially with cichlids. This disease comes from a sunken part of the head and weight loss and appetite loss.

The cause of this disease is up for debate, but it’s thought to come from poor water quality and the parasite Hexamita.

Treatment includes improving water quality and treating your tank with antibiotics.


Ich is a disease caused by a parasite. Ich is easy to spot because it causes small white dots on the fins, gills, and body.

Other symptoms are clamped fins, lethargy, appetite loss, and scraping against tank objects.

Ich is infectious, so treating the entire tank rather than quarantining the sick fish is best. Treatments for ich are salt baths, increasing tank temperature, malachite green, and acriflavine.

Final Thoughts

Mbunas can add wonderful pops of color to any environment, but not all Mbunas are the best for beginner fish keepers. There are several less aggressive mbunas that are great for beginners. It is best to leave the more aggressive species to experienced fish keepers.

Overall, these tips and information about Mbunas should provide ease of care. Maintaining ideal conditions, being careful with tankmates, and managing aggression are crucial to the healthy life of your Mbuna.

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