Melanochromis auratus:< "Shall We Dance"


Melanochromis auratus are an mbuna from Lake Malawi. Lake Malawi has many rocky areas, as well as some grassy and sandy areas to provide many hiding places for its inhabitants. They live in moderately hard water with the pH above 7.4.

Melanochromis auratus females are bright yellow with dark brownish black lines running the length of their bodies and dorsal. The rest of the fins are clear or yellow, with the exception of the caudal fin. The top half of the caudal fin is whitish – clear with dark spots or lines. The bottom half is bright yellow. The females can reach a total length of 20 cm. The three females that remained in my aquarium ranged from 8 cm to 11 cm total length.

The young males of this species look like the females. However when the males mature they turn a very dark black color. The lines that run the length of the body turn a beige/yellow/white color. The fins are black or clear and the dorsal fin has a beautiful yellow glow. When in breeding condition, the males also sport bright yellow/white egg spots on their anal fin. These males can get to 20 cm in total length. The male that I chose to keep was 12 cm in total length. There are color variations in this species, but the above description is what mine looked like.


The 20-liter aquarium was set up with several clay flowerpots of various sizes and shapes. There were also two plastic caves and some rock and slate caves put in this aquarium.

The temperature was maintained at 25C, pH 8.0, and the water hardness was 280 ppm. Water changes were done 50% weekly. With each water change the caves were re-arrange so new territories had to be sought out. A large outside power filter was also used on this aquarium.

After several months of this set up, more caves had to be added. Since we didn’t have any more we got very creative. After digging into several of the fish stuff boxes, that were not yet unpacked, we found two white plastic dividers. Not big enough to use as dividers but instead they created more walls. Then we added clear plastic livebearer breeding-trap boxes. Then to be more creative we took the motors off several outside power filters and added the empty boxes and lids. A box of plastic plants was then discovered so several were just thrown in on the top. To say the least the tank looked interesting. Ha Ha! Probably wouldn’t win a prize in "Aquarium Beautiful" but it worked. The fish were happy at least.

All kinds of small to medium-sized cichlid pellets and other kinds of pellets were fed. Also different kinds of flakes, bloodworms, white worms, brine shrimp, and plankton were added to their diet.


On a visit to one of our local pet stores, a single fish was spotted in the far back comer of a dark 60-liter aquarium. After asking a few questions the store manager told us told us it was an "African cichlid" and that it had babies in its mouth. That was all the information he could give us. Off we went in search of information

On the next visit to this store we saw the same fish, but we counted 13 fry swimming around her. I asked a few more questions. I can be really annoying this way. The information I got this time was that the female had already had her mouth full when the previous owner brought her into the store. They also told me they were feeding whatever they were feeding in the other tanks.

After two months, the 13 fry were purchased, with a caution that they would probably not make the trip across town into my aquarium because they were too small and too young. They ranged from 1 cm to 2 cm in length. We ignored this and asked if he would take back the extra males as they matured. This was agreed to, but he was still convinced he wouldn’t get any back.

What we discovered was that these fish liked to eat. With lots of the proper food, they began to grow rather quickly. After another month, a mature male started to show a change in color. The next month two more started to change color. With the research that was done, we knew that only one male should be kept in the aquarium. So we took two back to the pet store. Imagine how surprised the manager was! He couldn’t believe these were the same fish.

Almost instantly two more fish changed color. Then a third one partially changed. These two males were taken back to the store. The fish that partially changed color we kept, because it was more of a beige color than black. Doing more research, it was found that the dominant female will change to these colors. This was the largest fish now and it was UGLY! There were also two fish that didn’t seem to grow very much.

The aquarium was rearranged with every water change in an attempt to stop some of the fighting that was now taking place. The next month a female was noticed not eating. She was removed to an 80-liter aquarium by herself. See "Breeding".

The rest of the males were removed as they matured. The pet shop manager decided that he didn’t like the deal he made and asked us to see if any of the other stores would take them. A hint to pet shop managers: make sure you only make deals you intend to keep. After all, the fish might actually live! Ha Ha!

In the end the plan was to keep four females and one male. As it happened another pet store was willing to take some of the males and a few smaller females. Unfortunately the fish that were left in the 200-liter had a different idea. One more fish changed color. So we ended up with three females and one male. NOT A SINGLE FISH WAS LOST!

This African cichlid is a mean, territorial fish. They will fight to the death of another fish. Even the females will fight amongst themselves. For a single fish to be left alone, it must be completely hidden from view. If even just a fin is visible, another fish will attack it.

This is why all the hiding places are needed. There is one female that chose to hide up under the lip of the outside power filter. Another chose the floating plastic plants toward the middle of the aquarium, while the third female like to choose the clay pots in different locations. The male however has claimed the whole tank as his and swims around accordingly. These fish seemed to like the see-through plastic items that were placed in the aquarium. They would display and attack each other, but they didn’t get hurt or chased because they only ran into the see-through plastic pieces.

There was a problem when a young male starting to change color, but wasn’t noticed doing so right away. The dominant male took this opportunity to shred the less mature males’ fins. This fish would have eventually met his demise if he wasn’t quickly removed. Needless to say, he was put into a 40-liter aquarium by himself to heal. He was back in shape in no time and was taken in to one of the pet shops.

Another behavior that was noticed was the breeding female allowed the fry from the first two spawns back into her mouth for just about the entire week she was left with them. But the third spawn she rarely allowed back into her mouth. If a couple of fry managed to enter her mouth, they were spit back out instantly. This was possibly due to the fact that the first spawn had 7 fry, the second had 11, and the third had 21. Maybe 21 rambunctious fry were too much for her to handle bouncing around in her mouth.


The cichlid dance is a very interesting behavior. This behavior is where any two cichlids go head to tail and spin in circles, as fast as they can. This action was spotted as soon as the first 13 fish were put into the 200-liter aquarium. With these fish, the largest fish in the aquarium usually broke it up by attacking both circling fish. Then all three fish would scatter in different directions.

In the three spawns that were raised, this dance behavior began as soon as the female was removed from the brooding tank. Two of the young fry would dance for a while then just swim off in opposite directions. No other fish had to separate them.

I highly suspect this is a way of fighting, but it’s almost the same actions that were used when they were breeding. Only while breeding this action was done in slow motion.


The first sign of breeding we noticed was a female not eating. As mentioned above, she was moved to an 80-liter aquarium with water taken from the 200-liter aquarium. All water parameters were carefully kept the same. This aquarium had a small outside power filter with a sponge on the intake tube. There was also a single clay pot added.

I was told that this fish could swallow her brood if the move wasn’t done carefully. She was scooped up in the net and then dashed into the fish room and plopped into the 80-liter aquarium.

This females mouth was puffed out and her lips were held tightly together. It looked like she was burbling. After a few days her mouth darkened. After the mouth darkened she seemed to open her mouth slightly and take in water. Looking through the bottom of her mouth I spotted what looked like eyes. I counted fourteen. Imagine how surprised I was when seven fry popped out of her mouth two weeks later. The female was left with the fry for one week, then put back in the 200-liter aquarium.

The very next month this same female was brooding again. The same thing happened as above, but no fry or eyes were spotted in the buccal cavity. This time eleven fry appeared.


It wasn’t until five months later that I happened to notice the male dash into a clay pot, and a female followed him. The clay pot was lying on its side with the clear plastic box from a filter sitting in front of the opening. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I saw the actual spawning take place. The female and male would move slowly in circles, head to tail. The female would deposit the egg and the male would fertilize it. Then she would dash under him and pick up the egg. I never actually saw the eggs, because there was always a fish in the way.

This was the same female that spawned twice before. I know this because this particular fish has a break in one of her dark lines and the rest in the tank don’t. After a day she was moved to brood in a 40-liter aquarium. On day 20 she released her brood for the first time. I counted 20 fry.

When the fry were first released, they were a black color. It took until the next day before they all turned yellow and looked like the female. In less than a month, this very same female was once again brooding.


For the first two spawns I fed crushed pellets and crushed flakes, and baby brine shrimp. After the first week they were able to eat the small pellets without being crushed. Then frozen brine shrimp was added to their diet

For the third spawn, micro worms were fed for the first week. Then Grindal worms and flakes were added to their diet. Then pellets and white worms. This third spawn has grown much faster than the first two. They also seem more active.


In conclusion, these are very interesting fish to work with. A very large aquarium is a must, with many hiding places. Watching their behavior and the care of the eggs and fry by the female proved to be worth the trouble of raising them.


Axelrod, Dr. Herbert R.; Burgessm Dr. Warren E. 1993. African Cichlids of Lakes Malawi and Tanganyika, Thirteenth Edition. T.F.H. Publications, Inc.

Axelrod, Dr. Herbert R.; Burgess, Dr. Warren E.; Pronek, Neal; and Walls, Jerry G.: Dr. Axelrod’s Atlas of Freshwater Aquarium Fishes, Third Edition. T.F.H. Publications 1989. ?