Category: Cichlids

African, South and Central American Cichlids

The Peaceful Amazonian Cichlid Community Tank

The South American cichlids are among the most intelligent, personable, beautiful, and interesting fish in the aquarium world. It is not surprising that they are also among the most popular. But cichlid aficionados are a strange lot, and many take great pride in the fact that a lot of South American cichlids are big, nasty, and devoted demolishers of aquarium décor.

Turned off either by the wastelands of gravel piles and uprooted plants left in the wake of an oscar, or by the eye-less, fin-less, and scale-less results of an encounter between two green terrors, many aquarists either avoid South American cichlids entirely, or relegate them to an unadorned tank in the corner of the fish room. Here they are given “cull eating” duties, ridding the fish room of stunted, malformed, or otherwise undesirable fry, but they are often otherwise ignored

It is however entirely possible to have a South American cichlid tank as a showpiece aquarium. Complete with plants, schooling fish and tranquil settings. Such a tank requires planning and careful execution, but it can be done. And you can do it without resorting strictly to dwarf cichlids, or the two famous wimps of the cichlid world, the discus and the angelfish. We can include these if we like of course, but we can also have a lot more variety than that as well.

The secret to the planted cichlid aquarium is to protect the plant’s roots. The easiest way to protect the plant roots is to plant the roots though an “egg crate” type light diffuser of the type sold to cover fluorescent light fixtures. Place the roots of the plants through the holes in the plastic and lay the plastic (plants and all) over a level bed of gravel. Add enough additional sand to bury the egg crate and thus the plant roots. With this method it is impossible for cichlids to uproot the plants, but also, unfortunately, this method makes it very difficult to replant the aquarium once the egg crate is buried…the whole egg crate must be pulled out of the gravel in order to replant. Therefore, I would recommend using small squares of egg crate material, each holding one or two plants, rather than having a single sheet of egg crate covering the entire tank bottom.

A piece of egg crate can also be used to secure to the bottom a “not-quite” sinking piece of driftwood. Not suprisingly, dead wood litters the bottom of most Amazonian biotopes, and so submerged driftwood is a very common and desirable addition to the South American aquarium décor. But keeping the driftwood securely on the tank bottom may be a problem. Try strapping a piece of egg crate to the bottom of the driftwood with a couple plastic wire ties threaded through holes drilled through the bottom of the wood. Slide a piece of flat shale between the driftwood and the egg crate and then bury the egg crate just as you would one holding down a plant. This works much better than methods that glue or screw the driftwood to the shale, as screws and glue do not hold on to water-logged driftwood with any certainty.

With driftwood in place, it is time to choose plants. Amazon sword plants of various types are often the plant of choice for Amazonian tanks, as they are native to the area. However, Amazon sword plants, despite their robust root systems, are not really a good plant to have around cichlids or the plecos that are common tank mates for South American cichlids. Plecos and many cichlids are at least partially vegetarian, and sword plants seem to be their favorite vegetables. For this reason, the tougher sword plants such as Echinodorus osiris are to be preferred to the soft-leafed Echinodorus bleheri. But better still are thoroughly unpalatable plants like Java fern, despite the geographical inconsistency of putting an Asian plant in with South American fish. As a general rule, ferns are less palatable to fish than are flowering plants. Of the flowering plants, tough-leafed “bog” plants like Anubias are less palatable than fully aquatic plants. Of the fully aquatic plants, the thicker-leafed ones like Valisneria are less palatable than ones with thin, translucent leaves. For example Valisneria and Ludwigia make an interesting combination of fast-growing inedible plants that do well in a cichlid tank. The bushy red Ludwigia leaves make a nice contrast to the light-green strap-like leaves of the Valisneria. Both plants, once established, will grow extremely quickly, and thus do much to out-compete algae. Some of the smaller Cryptocoryne would make nice foreground plants. Some Java fern tied to the driftwood also creates a nice affect. And a large sword plant as a centerpiece is very nice, but again, I would recommend Echinodorus osiris over more delicate-looking species.

The cichlids (except for dwarf species) are fairly large for aquarium fish, and need elbow room. I would not recommend anything less than 200 liters for this aquarium, and 400 liters (and up) is very much better. Most cichlids are also “full-bodied”, with a lot of body mass for their length. And all cichlids are extremely gluttonous. Therefore be very careful with “inches of fish per gallon rule”. A 50 gallon tank most certainly can not support 50 inches of oscars, regardless of the “one inch of fish per gallon” rule. Stock you cichlid aquarium very lightly…no more than half what you think it can hold in terms of fish, and preferably much less than that. I would not recommend anything less than 30 liters of water per medium-sized cichlid, and 50 liters is much better. This will be the best thing you can do to keep in-tank aggression (as well as algae growth) under control.

This tank must have efficient biological filtration. Cichlids are big eaters and efficient ammonia producers, but they are also quite sensitive to ammonia, especially in neutral or alkaline waters. I would highly recommend a plant filter for their algae-fighting and oxygenating abilities. A trickle filter is a strong second choice, as it also an efficient oxygenator, but it does not help to reduce algae growth. Undergravel filters are a poor third choice, as they are detrimental to plant growth and contribute greatly to the tank’s algal growth and required maintenance.

The waters of Amazonia range from pH neutral in larger mainstreams down to an acidic pH of 4.5 in small, clear, “blackwater” tributaries. All Amazonian water is extremely soft. Reverse osmosis or another source of soft water may therefore be worth while, but it really is unnecessary. You can get by without it. If you do use RO water however, make sure you don’t lower the alkalinity below 30 mg/L CaCO3, or a dangerously unstable pH may result. Mixing 1 part Calgary tap water with 3 or 4 parts pure water is a good idea.

You may also want to use CO2 injection to lower the tank pH to near neutral, as this will assist your plants.

Several of the plants recommended above (especially Ludwigia and Valisneria) are “bright light” plants. So every effort should be made to supply at least 1 watt of high quality fluorescent lighting for every 2 liters of tank capacity. This can only be economically done if you build your own hood.

So we have set up a large tank with a running bio-filter, adequate illumination, a large piece of driftwood, and lots of plants of the recommended species. What fish do we get?

First of all, let’s only discuss fish that are (at least occasionally) available in the better local aquarium stores. To go through all of the acceptable South American species would be impossible, but if you have an opportunity to get a more unusual species described as “peaceful”, feel free to use it to substitute any of the suggestions below.

A beautiful group of cichlids are the earth eaters. They make up the genera Geophagus, Gymnogeophagus, and Satanoperca. These fish get their name from their habit of chewing and spitting out sand in order to find invertebrates. All this sand sifting means they have special requirements. A plant-free area of coarse sand or very fine gravel is recommended. Of these fish, the beautiful and commonly seen commercial “jurupari” (Satanoperca leucosticta) is quite peaceful and highly recommended. I’ve never seen the true jurupari (Satanoperca jurupari) but expect its temperament would be similar to leucosticta. The Brazilian earth eater (Geophagus braziliensis) and the red-hump earth eater (Geophagus steindachneri) are commonly available earth eaters, but they are somewhat bossier than the juruparoids. But they can certainly be considered for this tank as well. All of these fish are very difficult to sex until they are fully adult, so buy at least six youngsters to be sure to get a pair.

The “smiling acaras” of the genus Laetacara are highly recommended fish. They are available intermittently in the better aquarium stores. They are smallish cichlids, to about 8cm length. Some consider them dwarf cichlids, even though they are considerably heavier than the Apistogramma species. The most commonly seen species is Laetacara dorsigerus but it is usually misidentified as Laetacara curviceps in dealers’ tanks. They are usually sold under the common name curviceps. These fish are very attractive, with the males having very a nice wine-red throat and sides. A pair or two would make a very nice addition to this tank. Give them their own little cave or piece of driftwood to hide under.

The true dwarf cichlids of the genera Apistogramma and Mikrogeophagus can also be considered. These fish must be given small caves to reside in, either coconut shells or hollow driftwood. You are however unlikely to see much of them as they would tend to stay close to home and may not be noticed in such a large tank. They are better displayed in smaller quarters.

In a very large tank one could include the chocolate cichlid (Hypselecara temporalis), but not without some careful consideration first. Although they are peaceful toward other species, these are huge brutes that can cause a great deal of destruction without any particular effort. They can also be very aggressive toward their conspecifics at breeding time, so only a mated pair should be considered. These fish are also large and predatory enough to pop Apistogramma down like peanuts. Large males do however develop a lovely wine-red head and they are most impressive animals.

Another cichlid that is recommended is the rainbow cichlid, Herotilapia multispinossa. I have never understood either this fish’s common name or its scientific name, as it is neither a tilapine nor is it even remotely “rainbow” colored. Instead, this fish has a pleasant, but not gaudy, coloration of olive-green, yellowish, and black. Rainbow cichlids are smallish cichlids, to about 10cm in length, and quite peaceful. They are also ridiculously easy to breed and almost impossible to kill. I once had a female disappear from a tank…only to finally be found three months later inside a filter pipe (having snuck inside it when I temporarily removed the strainer and turned my back). After three months of continuously swimming against the current without any food, she finally lost the battle and ended up in the filter, where she was discovered; weak, thin, but very much alive. She recovered fully in less than two weeks of normal feeding.

Pretty much all of the “flattened” cichlids would go well in our peaceful tank, but the discus (Symphysodon species) might be a bit too shy for this community. More suitable would be the severum (Heros species), the angelfish (Pterophyllum species), and the festivum (Mesonauta species). Each of these get along very well as either mated pairs or in groups of at least six. All are docile, elegant, and beautiful. None will uproot plants, although the severum will take the odd bite out of one. The uaru (Uaru amphiacanthoides) would be a very nice fish to include as well, but these fish get extremely large, so need at least an 800-liter tank.

Cichlids, despite their ruffian reputations, are actually quite skittish animals, and if they are the only fish in the tank you might not see them very often. An active school of smaller fishes does wonders in keeping the cichlids feeling secure enough to stay out in the open. These “dither fish” as they are called, can be any schooling fish that will not harass or be eaten by the cichlids. Any of the larger round-bodied tetras are very good, while small tetras like neons are likely to be considered food. Any of the hatchet fishes make very good dither fish for cichlids smaller than the chocolate cichlid, as the hatchet fish cruise around at the surface, out of the cichlids’ way. It is important to keep the hatchet fishes’ tank carefully covered, however.

Additional tank mates that are also recommended are the Corydoras catfish and any of the medium-sized sucker-mouthed catfishes, like Ancistrus or Sturisoma. Very small suckermouths like Otocinclus are likely to be eaten, and very large suckermouths like Panaque will almost certainly chew your plants down to the gravel line. The same holds true for silver dollars (Metynnis species) and head standers (Anostomus species), which would otherwise make excellent choices as tank mates.

Below are a few suggested communities for relatively peaceful cichlid aquaria. All tanks are assumed to be set up as per instructions given above. Try to give at 20 to 30 liters of water per small cichlid (curviceps or rainbow cichlid), 30 to 50 liters of water per medium-sized cichlid (severum, festivum, jurupari, or angelfish), and at least 80 liters of water for each chocolate cichlid or uaru.

  1. Smallish Tank (200 to 400 liters). Six severums or angelfish or festivums, one pair curviceps, one Sturisoma, six Corydoras, six medium-sized tetras.
  2. Medium-sized Tank (400 to 800 liters). Six severums or angelfish or festivums, two pair curviceps, one pair rainbow cichlids, six Corydoras, four Sturisoma, ten medium-sized tetras, ten hatchet fish.
  3. Medium-sized Tank (400 to 800 liters). Six jurupari, one pair rainbow cichlids, six Corydoras, four Sturisoma, ten medium-sized tetras.
  4. Large-sized Tank (800 to 1200 liters). Eight jurupari, eight severums, six Corydoras, six rainbow cichlids, four Sturiosoma, twenty medium-sized tetras, ten hatchet fish.
  5. Very Large Tank (> 1200 liters). Mated pair chocolate cichlids, eight uaru, eight jurupari, eight Sturisoma, ten Prochilodus.


The Dirt Cheap Discus (Article on Severum – ed. note)

It’s been years since I owned a discus. The discus I did own, back in my university days, were – well, lets face it – as boring as last week’s newspaper.

This actually came as a bit of a shock – with all the hype surrounding discus I thought they would be something special. But instead they were dull: mostly because they didn’t act anything like cichlids. Of course, my angelfish didn’t act anything like cichlids either, so I was prepared for that, but what shocked me was the discus didn’t act like angelfish either. At least my angelfish recognized me (the food guy) and acted excited when I walked in the room. But the discus just stayed where they were and looked down their noses at me with disinterested disdain. You’d think they’d get excited too given how much they ate. But it was as if doing anything besides standing still and gulping down the most expensive live food available was beneath them. If there ever was a snooty fish, the discus would be it.

Of course, I should have known they would be snobs. Just try to find an article or book about discus that doesn’t describe them as the “King of the Aquarium”. We mere commoners must not take the care of royalty lightly. They require the best of foods, the largest of tanks, the most efficient of filtration (that must never create a current strong enough to disturb them), and the very best water that reverse osmosis and black water extract can make. And, oh yes, one should never allow any of the lesser fish species to besoil a discus tank with its presence.


OK, so they really aren’t that bad, but no one can deny that discus are persnickety.

So why not avoid the expense of discus in favor of a fish that is just as regal, just as large, just as docile, but a lot more active? The severum.

OK. A severum isn’t quite a discus. There are a number of differences. The severum, while just as ‘laterally compressed” as a discus, has a profile that is more spade-shaped than the much rounder discus. Neither has the severum been bred into as many gaudy colour strains as the discus. But the severum is a good deal less neurotic than its discoidal counterpart. This means that the severum is less prone to various bizarre behaviors such as smashing into the walls of the aquarium at high speed for no apparent reason, or turning black and lying on their sides in a futile attempt to imitate a flounder.

And as far as feeding a severum goes, any experienced discus keeper will think that that the severum is a trash disposal unit in comparison to the picky discus. Everything from Cheerios to dandelion leaves, from flake food to beef heart, from cantaloupe to grapes, and from neon tetras to blood worms will readily disappear into a severum’s gullet. Try to get a discus to eat anything that sells for less than $1 a gram and watch them turn their noses up at it.

And severum’s are dirt cheap. Even young adults go for under $10 retail, a fraction of the cost of a discus.

Although the severum doesn’t have as many colour strains as the discus, there is one artificial strain that is sold…the “gold severum”. This is just a “melanistic mutation” (not quite an albino) that wouldn’t last two minutes in the wild. As an enthusiast of fish that look like nature intended I’ll forgo any further discussion on the gold severum and confine this discussion to the proper “green” (wild type) severum.

Admittedly, no wild-type severum can ever match the color of one of those ultra-neurotic, always-eat-their-own-kids, “fancy” discus strains. But a wild severum will get to be as colorful as any wild discus. And it is not any deficiency in color that makes the severum so much cheaper than the discus…its their ease of breeding and the laws of supply and demand. Not only are severums easy to spawn, they are very fecund, producing several hundred fry per spawn. A single pair of severums can easily swamp a local market for young severums with their offspring, thus driving the price down almost to embarrassingly low levels.

There are actually at least two different fish species sold as the severum. The Brazilian severum is generally thought to be Heros severus, while the Peruvian fish is Heros appendiculatus. The proper species designations for the genus Heros is however likely to turn out to be much more complicated than that. The commonly seen commercial severum most closely resembles the Peruvian H. appendiculatus, but is most likely some kind of mixture of fishes from various locales.

The commercial severum is an adaptable, resilient, and (when fully mature) magnificent fish. The basic background colour is an olive green, with a black vertical bar just in front of the tail. Their anal fins are flushed with ochre. The fish can also display dark green bars on a light background along the length of its body when the mood strikes it. I haven’t been able to correlate this display with any specific behaviour though, so I am not sure exactly what “mood” results in the dark green stripes. The adult males also display turquoise blue striations on the face and gill covers, making them very attractive. A mature dominant (wild-type) severum male is as striking as any real (wild-type) discus, but raising such a specimen is a slow process, and alas, only one male in a tank will ever reach its colourful best.

Severums are not aggressive fish and can be kept with other docile cichlids such as angelfish, festivums, uarus, members of the earth-eater group of cichlids (of the genus Geophagus, etc.), the South American dwarf cichlids, and yes, even with discus if the tank is large enough. Other suitable tankmates include any of the South American tetras and catfish that are not too large and not too small for any of the fish to consider the others a meal. Adult severums will swallow very small tetras, but any of the larger round-bodied tetras make fine tank mates. They should however not be kept with bullying cichlids like the Jack Dempsey or the Oscar.

Severums do best either when kept either as mated pairs or in groups of at least six. Because these fish grow to a length of over 20cm, a large tank is required. 100 liters is the absolute minimum capacity for a pair of severums, and a small group needs more than 200 liters. A community tank with a group of severums and any of the other large cichlids mentioned above would likely require at least 400 liters.

A planted tank is highly recommended, as severums (unlike discus) inhabit plant-filled streams in the wild. Water conditions are not critical for commercially bred severums and local Calgary water conditions are fine as they are. Softer, more acidic water may be necessary for wild-caught fish, however. Temperatures in the range of 24C to 26C are recommended, but my fish have experienced temperatures ranging from 18C to 32C without showing any distress whatsoever.

Severums will eat some plants, but are not voracious plant destroyers. I have had little problem keeping them in fully planted tanks. Of the common plant species, they seem to like to eat Amazon sword plants and temple plants more than the others. Java fern and val seem to be ignored totally. They will not uproot any plants except possibly just before spawning.

These fish are very hardy, and can be recommended as a first cichlid to anyone willing to supply a suitably sized tank. I have come up with several bizarre ways to try to kill my severums but failed each time. The severums are however my only fish to have come down with a case of ich in the last several years…but I cured this easily by simply raising the tank temperature to 32C for two weeks. The only thing I would caution the prospective keeper about is that it is very important to have a suitably mature biological filter in a severum tank. These fish seem to be very sensitive to ammonia, especially in our local alkaline water. As these are large fish, they can easily overload an immature filter if several are added to an aquarium at once, resulting in their deaths.

The diet of the severum should include some plant matter. My fish get a stable diet of a homemade gelatin food that contains zucchini, spinach, and carrots. A Spirulina flake food should also be included. They also feed upon invertebrates in the wild, so Daphnia and insect larvae should be included in their diet if possible. Like almost all cichlids, they are also astonishingly fond of earthworms, but these rich morsels should never make up the bulk of a severum’s diet or obesity and constipation will result.

Sexing severums is fairly easy provided you have one of each sex to compare. The largest individuals are almost always males, as females are usually some 20% smaller than males of the same age. The males’ anal and dorsal fins are also considerably more pointed than the females’, and a female in breeding condition has a much more pronounced belly than the male.

Spawning will take place in a community aquarium if the fish are dominant within that aquarium, but it will occur much more readily if the pair are given a tank to themselves. The fish will begin spawning by the time they are 7cm or so in length. They will usually spawn in typical substrate-cichlid fashion on a flat rock, but they may also choose the base of a vertical surface. The fry are guarded by the parents before and after they become free-swimming. All the severums in my experience made doting parents. Watching their parental behaviour is still one of the most fascinating aspects of the aquarium hobby. The fry can be reared on newly hatched brine shrimp and crushed Spirulina flake food. Growth is rapid at first, but slows considerably after the fish are 2cm or so in length. By that time you would have probably have had to get rid of most of the fry as it would be very difficult to raise all of them. When culling the fry do not however only choose the fastest growing fish as the keepers, because these will almost certainly all be males. Instead, rid yourself of all obviously malformed or stunted fry first, then if you still need to reduce numbers, choose the remaining fish to be culled more or less at random.

Severums mature quite slowly, and it may be almost two years before the young will breed. Expect at least another year after that before the males show their best colors. On the other hand severums are one of the longer lived aquarium fish and you can expect to keep your fish for well over ten years.

The severum is in my opinion one of the most underrated and under-appreciated fish in the aquarium world…a situation I can only attribute to the long period of time that a mature male requires to show his full colors. The juveniles that the stores sell are simply not flashy enough to draw much attention. However, for the aquarist with patience, the severum is one of the most rewarding fish available.

The Mbuna Community Tank

The African rift lake, Lake Malawi, has an estimated 1000 species of cichlids within it, or almost as many cichlid species as are found in the rest of the world combined.

Lake Malawi’s water is virtually identical (chemically) to Calgary’s tap water – moderately hard and alkaline. Its vast array of fishes therefore adapts readily and easily to local water conditions. That a giant tropical lake in Africa has water so similar to the Bow River’s Rocky Mountain melt-water is just one of life’s happy coincidences.

Furthermore, all Lake Malawi cichlids are maternal mouthbrooders, and few of them present any real difficulties in captive propagation. In fact, Lake Malawi cichlids (with very few exceptions) have proven themselves to be among the easiest of aquarium fish to breed. So soon after a colorful new Lake Malawi cichlid arrives from Africa, local breeders make sure it becomes readily available. Remember how quickly the yellow Labidochromis caerulus became so common in local stores during the early 90’s, and how quickly Pseudotropheus saluosi filled CAS auction bags in just the last couple of years.

Such a huge and rapid increase in availability does of course result in an equally rapid drop in purchase price. Lake Malawi cichlids therefore offer the best value for dollar among the world’s truly colorful fresh water aquarium fish.

The chemical similarity of Calgary and Lake Malawi water and the great value that Lake Malawi cichlids represent means that anyone wishing to set up a spectacular community display of largish fish can do it most easily and cheaply with Lake Malawi cichlids. So…you decide you want a nice big community tank full of colorful Lake Malawi cichlids…something to really draw attention. How do you go about it?

Well, first of all, you are going to have decide which cichlids you want. The Lake Malawi cichlids can be subdivided into three major groups; the mbuna (pronounced um-BOO-nuh), the non-piscivores, and the piscivores. Except for only a few exceptional species (which I’ll get into later), you really should keep these groups separated. Mixing mbuna with non-piscivores generally results in terrorized (or dead) non-piscivores, and most of the piscivores just get too big and mean to be mixed with anything else.

Lets take a look at the most popular, readily available, and easily bred group of Lake Malawi cichlids, the mbuna.

The mbuna are rock-dwelling fish. The group includes the fish in the genera Pseudotropheus, Labeotropheus, Melanochromis, Labidochromis, Petrotilapia, and a few others. Some of the most colorful fish in the world are in this group, and both the female and the male mbuna may have brilliant colors.

But the problem with mbuna is that they tend to kill each other.

The easiest way to keep mbuna’s natural aggression from resulting in death is to keep the fish crowded. Having only a small number of mbuna in a tank always result in the death of the least-dominate fish. So never have less than six fish of any one species, use a tank of at least 200 liters size, and double the usual stocking limit of your aquarium. To compensate for the crowding you have to have very heavy biological filtration, provide lots of water movement, and change a lot of water. A 50% water change twice a week is barely adequate, so anyone trying to keep an mbuna aquarium without a Python or similar water changer is crazy. I would also only recommend a wet/dry biological filter or (ideally) a plant filter for an mbuna tank. A large canister filter is a reasonable alternative (especially one attached to a biowheel) but undergravel filters have no place in a crowded tank of large digging fish.

We also have to supply the mbuna aquarium with a lot of hiding places. Since mbuna naturally inhabit rocky reefs, the mbuna community tank should have lots of rock piles with numerous holes and cavities. So much for your spectacular display, right? OK, so rock piles don’t make for the most beautiful of tank décors but you’re sort of stuck with them. However, you can still try to make the tank as attractive as possible. Local landscaping supply places will sell you rundle stone, a slatey limestone that is perfect for aquascaping the mbuna tank. Its dark color is quite attractive and its building block structure allows you to make numerous caves that will not fall over at the slightest touch. I would suggest building a grotto by covering the sides and the back of your aquarium with a “cliff” of rundle stone, along with several outcroppings and “islands”.

In my opinion, all display aquaria should be planted. Fortunately, mbuna are not the least bit light shy and will happily swim under the bright lights that the plants require. Use at least 1 watt of fluorescent or metal halide lighting for every 2 liters of tank capacity. Since no reasonably priced tank top supplies this much light, you are forced to build your own top. Sorry.

Unfortunately, mbuna will eat most plants. About the only plants I can keep in mbuna tanks are Vallisneria. All others are either too slow growing to avoid being smothered by hair algae in the brightly lit, crowded mbuna aquarium, or else the mbuna will just eat them. I think this is unfortunate because I have never particularly liked the looks of Vallisneria. But Vallisneria is however an ideal plant in other ways. It is common in Lake Malawi itself so contributes to a natural looking environment for your fish. It is also one of only a few aquatic tropical plants that does best in the alkaline water that mbuna require. But because mbuna dig, it is necessary to protect the plants’ roots with a plastic “egg crate” light diffuser of the type sold to cover fluorescent light fixtures.

When you choose your tank, choose one as big as possible. The absolute smallest size I would suggest is 200 liters, but at least 400L is much better. If you want to keep the larger mbuna of the genus Petrotilapia then 400 liters is the bare minimum. Also, longer is better. A long tank will give a harassed fish room to get away from any despotic cave owners. Try to get a tank at least 1.2m long, but double that is ideal.

To aquascape your mbuna aquarium, place a level layer of fine gravel or coarse sand about 7cm deep over the bottom of the aquarium (you may wish to mix some laterite or earthworm castings in the lower third of the gravel). Cut the egg crate to completely cover the gravel layer. Then take your Vallisneria plants and individually stick their bottoms through the egg crate holes, and lay the egg crate over the gravel so the plant roots are under it. You’ll want about one plant per liter of tank capacity, but Vallisneria reproduces so quickly with runners that you need not start out with that many. Next take your rundle stones and build your grotto on top of the egg crate (but not on top of your plants off course). The egg crate and gravel protects the tank bottom from damage while keeping your fish from digging under the rocks. After the rocks are in place, add enough additional fine gravel to bury the egg crate.

I would ignore the usual advice for stocking an aquarium with one or two fish for the first six weeks then adding only a few fish at a time. If you try this with mbuna the new arrival will always be killed. So you want to add all the fish at once. This means that you should have the tank set up with an already mature external bacterial filter or a growing plant filter. You can mature an external bacterial filter easily by hooking it to another running aquarium for a few months, or else hook it to a water container to which a small amount (5mg/L) of ammonia chloride is added weekly for six weeks.

Now, with filter, plants, and rocks in place, its time to get some fish.

Since you are adding all the fish at once, it is best, both financially and for the fish, to purchase only subadult fish. All the fish should be roughly the same size at purchase, but do not choose only the biggest fish from a tank full of youngsters. If you do so you’ll end up with only males. Instead, select your fish more or less at random (rejecting any obviously stunted or sick fish of course). A swift scoop with a large net through a school of 2cm fry does the job nicely.

Most of the regularly available mbuna grow to the 10cm to 15cm length range, although most Petrotilapia species are a bit bigger, and some Labidochromis are a bit smaller. You don’t have to worry about matching species’ adult sizes when you go to select your fish. Instead, you have to match temperaments and keep aggressive fish away from the relative wimps. Below are several lists of compatible mixes composed of readily available species. For all the suggested species mixes, 1 fish for every 10 liters of tank capacity is a good stocking rate, with 200 liters (20 fish) being the minimum tank size. You want roughly equal numbers of individuals for all species, with six being the minimum suggested number of individuals of any one species for any given tank. Since you are buying subadults, you will not be able to sex them, so be prepared to remove (or lose) some males as they mature.

Other hints at keeping deaths to a minimum are more subtle. Avoid putting together fish with similarly colored males. Not only does a uniform color scheme result in a rather boring display, it also results in cross breeding and a lot of inter-species aggression. Also, for the same reasons, do not put together closely related fish species or fish of the same species but of different color morphs.

You should be aware that even with lots of caves and crowded conditions, some exceptionally aggressive mbuna, like Melanochromis auratus, are difficult to keep together at all. Henry and Jennifer Wilkinson (The Calquarium, June 1998) have had success raising these fish in a tank filled with clear plastic filter boxes, but all I’ve ever seen from them (in a more conventional mbuna tank) is unrestrained warfare (see sidebar). I would therefore recommend leaving these fish (and all large Melanochromis) out of your community aquarium, despite their brilliant colors. Happily, however, Melanochromis’ mayhem is directed mostly to their own congeners, so if you do include them your other fish have a reasonable chance of surviving well after the Melanochromis population is reduced to a single male.

One of the great conveniences of mbuna is their willingness to breed. In fact, you won’t be able to stop them. Breeding in mbuna is a casual affair, and there is no pair formation or bonding between the prospective parents. Instead the dominant male will quiver in front of the female, who (if receptive) will lay her eggs on a flat surface and quickly pick them up in her mouth. The fertilization of the eggs occurs when the female turns to mouth the male’s genital papilla. Ideally, after that the mothers should be removed to a safe secluded aquarium of their own. However, they are impossible to catch without tearing down the entire tank. Because of the weight of all the rocks in your display, you’ll get tired of this procedure pretty quickly. But do not fear, because mbuna are truly pathetic predators, with the exception of the larger, “long-snouted” Melanochromis species like M. chipokae. If none of these fish are present (and they are so aggressive you probably don’t want them anyway), any babies produced can and will grow up in the display tank with very few losses…just supply them with suitably sized food. The mother, however, eats very little (if at all) for the three to four weeks of incubation, and so she will be underweight and vulnerable during and after her time with the fry. Most deaths of females are the result of loss of condition from maternal duties. This is all the more reason to have a large, long tank with plenty of hiding places.

Mbuna need a lot of vegetable matter in their diet (with the exception of Labidochromis) and should be fed Spirulina flakes and blanched zucchini slices. Green peas and romaine lettuce are also good supplements, and yellow squash will help bring out their red and yellow colors. The last three may be less than enthusiastically received however. Failure to provide adequate roughage in the diet eventually results in intestinal problems followed by a usually fatal bacterial infection (“Malawi bloat”). In addition, the usual aquarium fare should be provided, but avoid rich and fatty foods like black worms.

The mbuna, except for Labidochromis and the aforementioned predatory Melanochromis species, will also graze on algae. This is good, since a lush algae crop will inevitably grow in any properly lit and stocked mbuna tank. The Labeotropheus species are the most enthusiastic algae eaters. But not even Labeotropheus will polish the glass clean like any self-respecting pleco would do, so your aquarium glass will need regular cleaning. The rocks will (and should) also become coated with bright green hair. But if you aren’t put off by the geographical inaccuracy, feel free to put a few bristle-noses (the South American Ancistrus sp.) into the tank for algae control. If you are a purist this mixing of continents may not appeal to you, but if so you should also be aware that almost every mbuna community aquarium (including the suggested ones given below) are mixtures of fishes that would never encounter each other in nature. Very few mbuna color morphs (or even species) are found beyond one isolated reef, island, or stretch of shore…and unless you know the exact location of your fishes’ range, it would be impossible to create a truly natural community anyway.

Algae growth on the plants is also inevitable, but established Vallisneria plants are so fast growing that this is mostly just an aesthetic problem. Thinning out older, algae covered leaves regularly will help, as will snails.

So what fish should you get?

Here are some nice groupings of readily available fishes that will give you a lot of color variety, aren’t likely to crossbreed, and are reasonably compatible:

1) A highly aggressive community (the loss of all but one male of each species and at least some females is likely: avoid this selection unless you are very brave)

Melanochromis auratus: yellow and dark-brown females, and dark-brown and silver-blue males. Or Melanochromis chipokae: black and electric-blue males, whitish and dark-brown females. M. chipokae is one of the predatory species, with M. melanopterus.Pseudotropheus elongatus

: deep blue and black barred males and brownish females. May be confused with Pseudotropheus minutus, a similarly shaped and colored, but smaller and much less aggressive, fish.Pseudotropheus crabro

: a yellow to golden-brown fish with dark brown vertical bars (“bumble bee”).2) A moderately aggressive community (some fish may still be lost):

Labeotropheus trewavasse: an indigo-blue fish with an orange dorsal (although other color morphs also exist).Red zebras (Pseudotropheus estherae): a yellow-orange to orange-red fish.

Pseudotropheus minutus

: deep blue and black barred males and brownish females. Do not confuse with Pseudotropheus elongatus, a similarly elongated and colored fish, but one that’s larger and much more aggressive.

Melanochromis johannii

: black and electric-blue males, pale yellow females.

3) Another moderately aggressive community, (some fish may still be lost):

BB zebra (Pseudotropheus zebra): a stunning “black barred” and blue fish. Pseudotropheus socolofi

: a sky blue fish.

kenyi (Pseudotropheus lombardoi): a fish with blue and silver females, and orange males.

Labeotropheus fuelleborni

“OB”: an “orange-blotched” fish with an orangish background and black, blue, and white spangles (“calico”).

4) A less aggressive community (no losses of fish are expected):

Labidochromiscaeruleus: Colors range from spectacular solid yellow, through white, to black bars on a blue background. However, it is likely that these color morphs actually represent separate undescribed species.Iodotropheus sprengerae

: this fish is variable in color (most are quite plain) but nice ones have a yellowish-brown background and mauve sides (and are the only predominantly mauve aquarium fish available).Cynotilapia afra

: a blue and black barred fish with a yellow-orange dorsal fin (although other color morphs also exist).Other commonly seen fish that can be considered for the moderately or less-aggressive communities are Pseudotropheus saluosi and Pseudotropheus “acei”. P. saluosi is a very colorful smallish mbuna with blue and black males and orange-yellow females. They will however interbreed readily with Labidochromis caeruleus and other small Pseudotropheus, and possibly smaller Pseudotropheus and Cynotilapia species also. They should be considered a substitution for these fishes rather than a tank-mate. Pseudotropheus “acei” is a steel-blue fish with yellow fins. It is especially easily bred (even for an mbuna) but in all probability it has similar proclivities when it comes to cross breeding as does saluosi.

The non-mbuna cichlid species that will go well with both the moderately and less-aggressive communities include Cyrtocara moorii. This is a lovely sky blue fish with an interesting bulbous head. Also suitable is Sciaenochromis fryeri (the “electric blue hap”). In addition, almost all of the utaka (Copadichromis and related genera) or the peacocks (Aulonocara and related genera) can be kept with the fishes in the less-aggressive community, but I wouldn’t include these gentler fishes with any of the other communities. Also, these non-mbuna fish (especially Sciaenochromis fryeri) are much better fry predators than are the mbuna, and so they should not be included if you want your fish to successfully reproduce in the show tank.

So that should help you set up a fabulous mbuna display tank. Their constant breeding, territorial squabbling, and enthusiastic feeding, along with their undeniably spectacular color, surely makes an mbuna community the most entertaining tank you can own. Have fun ?


Melanochromis auratus


Subadult male and female Melanochromis auratus are yellow fish with two horizontal dark brown stripes that go down the length of the upper half of their sides. When the males mature, however, their body color below the lower stripe darkens to the same color as the stripe, turning a light fish with dark stripes into a dark fish with a light stripe. This process takes a couple of weeks to a month and occurs when the fish is about eight months old, unless the change is suppressed by the bullying of a more dominant fish.

The first time I witnessed this transformation was in my first mbuna community aquarium. This tank was a 200 liter aquarium that was nearly filled with limestone rocks and Vallisneria planted in clay flowerpots. It started out with six young Melanochromis auratus, six Pseudotropheus socolofi, and six red zebras (Pseudotropheus estherae).

Soon after the male auratus changed color he decided that he would fight the tanks’ dominant male Pseudotropheus socolofi for ultimate control of the tank. The socolofi then proceeded to thrash him. Fortunately I was able to rescue the auratus male before he was killed, and nursed him back to health in a separate tank.

Two months later, with fins and scales back in place, the auratus male was returned to the community aquarium. To my surprise the male, by then in full adult color, reversed his color-pattern again! He changed back into the brown-on-yellow female color over the next week as he hid from the male socolofi. Several months later, however, he changed color a third time (this time for good) when he went back to the male pattern. He never challenged the socolofi male again, but over the next year killed all five of the tank’s auratus females, making him the nastiest fish I’ve ever owned.