The Peaceful Lake Malawi Community Tank

Last month, I discussed the mbuna community tank. While I tried to make it clear that it possible to have such a thing without continuous internal warfare, I have to admit that even the most placid mbuna community is a bit on the rowdy side. So, what if you really, really, really object to watching your fish kill each other? Is it possible to have a Lake Malawi tank with no murders at all? Or what if you are ready for something more difficult than mbuna. They are, after all, so ridiculously easy to spawn and raise (well, except for the mutually inflicted injuries) that an advanced aquarist might soon look for more of a challenge.

Well, the good news is that there are plenty of other challenges from Lake Malawi, and some of the other Lake Malawi cichlids are amazingly peaceable. Not quite cardinal-tetra polite perhaps, but perfectly suited to community living nonetheless.

So let’s set up a peaceful Lake Malawi community tank.


Even though we are choosing relatively peaceable fishes, we will not be choosing very small ones so a larger tank is necessary. You want at least a 200L tank, but much better would be a 400L tank. The larger tank will allow you to select the larger fish presented here and create a much more dramatic display. A wet/dry trickle filter or a plant filter are your best choices for a filter, but a large canister/biowheel combination is fine too.

The relatively peaceable cichlids need not be kept as crowded as the rowdier mbuna. So I would reduce the stocking rate considerably below the crowded conditions suggested for an mbuna tank. This will help in keeping the tank’s algae levels in control. One fish for every 20L of tank capacity is good, but a few more fish is acceptable if water changes are stepped up to the 50% weekly level.

Lighting should be sufficient to keep your plants healthy, so you should aim for 1 watt of fluorescent or metal halide lighting for every 2 liters of tank capacity. Because you are not going to keep the vegetarian mbuna in this tank, you can keep a much wider variety of plants in this tank than just Vallisneria. What plants you would like are up to you. But remember we must maintain an alkaline environment in all Lake Malawi tanks, so that means no CO2 injection or reverse osmosis water. In my experience, Vallisneria and Cabomba do the best among the common aquarium plants in alkaline environments. Java fern is reported to be OK as well but I’ve never had any luck with this plant so I can’t personally recommend it as a good choice. Other plants will adapt nicely as well, but most of them are really happier in softer, more acidic water, and so are less suitable than Vallisneria and Cabomba.

All commonly seen Lake Malawi cichlids will dig (at least a bit) so it is necessary to protect the plant roots. I would strongly recommend planting through one of those plastic “egg crate” light diffusers of the type sold to cover fluorescent light fixtures. Stick the Vallisneria bottoms through the holes so that the roots are under the egg crate before lying the egg crate over the gravel. Also, “thread” the Cabomba stems through the holes so that the plant is pinned under the egg crate in the middle. This works for Cabomba since these plants sprout roots along their entire lengths (there is no top and bottom to Cabomba like in terrestrial plants). However, Cabomba roots are far too small to keep the plant rooted when a large cichlid gives it even the most casual attention, and so this plant must be held down by its stem.

The tank décor should also include at least some rockwork because the tank will include some rock-dwelling fish. Rundle stone is fine, as is pretty much any other non-metallic stone (including limestone). Driftwood is a less suitable choice because all driftwood will stain and acidify the water to some degree. Although this is desirable for rainforest fishes, it is not good for fish from the clear alkaline waters of Lake Malawi.

So now lets’ choose some suitable fish species for this tank.


First, we’ll look at the “haplochromines”. Most of these fish were once included in the genus Haplochromis (and are still often sold under that name) but Haplochromis has since been broken up into numerous genera of manageable sizes.

The problem with these fish is that it is usually only the males that offer any color, and often only the dominant male at that. So in any aquarium of haplochromines, only one male can be expected to reach full color and breed.

My selection of “peaceable” haplochromines includes only those fish that will only intimidate each other, not actually kill each other. And their intimidation must be confined to members of their own species. Many haplochromine fishes will also intimidate the males of other species, resulting in a case of “hyperdominance”; where only one male cowers the rest of the tank population. Such fishes are to be left out of this tank. But do not expect this tank to be paragon of harmony – cichlids are just not like that.

So if they aren’t really all that peaceable and only one fish will show its color anyway, why include the haplochromines at all? Well, some of the most spectacular color among fishes is found among the Malawi haplochromine males, so they are well worth including.

The haplochromines we will look at are the peacocks, the utaka, the chisawasawa, and the piscivores.


The peacocks are fish of the genera Aulonocara and Trematocranus. They hunt sand-dwelling invertebrates with the help of pressure-sensitive tubes in the flesh of their jaws. Because they sift sand while hunting they should be kept in a tank with a sandy bottom. These fish will uproot any plants (inadvertently) that are not protected by an egg crate as they look for food.

All the Aulonocara are reasonably peaceable fishes (although Aulonocara jacobfreibergi might be a little bossier than the others) so I would recommend any of the Aulonocara species for this tank, but please get only one species per aquarium. The Aulonocara females are at best difficult to tell apart (often impossible) and crossbreeding is inevitable in a mixed-species tank. Also, be careful when selecting your specimens, and make sure they are not only of the same species but also from the same location. The various Aulonocara come in a bewildering array of local types that are usually described with either a location name, a descriptive name, or a pseudo-scientific name. Many of these may prove to be separate species or sub-species so keep them separate.

Some of the more colorful peacocks that are commonly seen are Aulonocara jacobfreibergi “Otter Point”, Aulonocara baenschi (the sunshine peacock), and Aulonocara hansbaenschi “regal” (the red-shouldered peacock). Many other peacocks are available and can be chosen, but be careful with this group of fishes especially, as many crossbred or otherwise bogus fish have made it to market. The “German red peacock” is a suspected aquarium hybrid strain that I would avoid purchasing, despite their nice colors. The albino strains that are available are also suspected hybrids. I would also avoid any fish showing adult coloration while still small, as such a fish is either a stunted adult or a juvenile treated with hormones. To protect yourself against purchasing bastardized fish, do not buy any fish that is not properly identified with a scientific name and/or type locality and can not be referenced to a published photograph or description (other than a price list). The CAS library book Lake Malawi Cichlids in Their Natural Habitat, by Ad Konings, is invaluable in selecting and identifying peacocks.


The utaka are open-water plankton feeding fishes that include fish of the genera Protomelas, Copadichromis, and many others.

The most commonly seen Protomelas species is Protomelas taeniolatus. This is a highly variable species with numerous local races ranging in color from solid blue to blue suffused with orange or red. All these races should be kept separate and treated as different species (as they may turn out to be) because of the risk of crossbreeding. The commonly seen orangish morph is sometimes sold as the “tangerine tiger”. The Protomelas species sold as the “red empress” (possibly Protomelas taeniolatus) is another recommended fish, but again, keep only one Protomelas variety per tank.

Another recommended utaka is Copadichromis azureus, sometimes sold as “electric blue II”. Being just as colorful, but much gentler and less predatory than the original “electric blue” (Sciaenochromis fryeri), it is a highly desirable aquarium resident. A great deal of geographical variation exists among fish currently described as C. azureus, and the males range from an iridescent royal blue to a dark navy blue.

Two other Copadichromis that you may encounter are Copadichromis quadrimaculatus, and Copadichromis chrysonotus. The C. quadrimaculatus male is a blue-cheeked fish with rusty to yellow-oranges sides. C. chrysonotus is colored similarly to C. azureus, except it has a white dorsal fin. I have little personal experience with the other Copadichromis but I have no reason to expect they would behave much differently from C. azureus. All Copadichromis species should be kept separately, as they will cross breed and their females are almost indistinguishable.


Closely related to the utaka are the chisawasawa. The chisawasawa eat from the sand, either through sifting it themselves or hanging around while a larger fish does the hard work and then picking up the scraps or fleeing invertebrates.

Since none of these fishes have feeding territories, they make quite gentile aquarium residents (at least when not breeding). Breeding can change their temperament greatly however – if not in their attitude toward their tank-mates, then at least in their attitude toward your aquarium décor. Many breeding male chisawasawa will dig large pits for spawning purposes; a behavior that is guaranteed to uproot any unprotected plants.

Highly recommended is the blue dolphin cichlid, Cyrtocara moorii (usually sold as “Haplochromis moorii”). This fish grows somewhat larger than the previously mentioned fishes (over 20cm long) but is quite an enjoyable fish to own. The fish is a lovely, but not gaudy, deep sky blue. Color is most intense in dominant males but the females also have a similar color. Two darker blue blotches are present on the sides of subadults and may be seen in some adult females and subordinate males. The males (and to a lesser extent the females) possess an obvious forehead gibbosity, giving them a somewhat beluga-like profile. In nature they are specialized feeder, following around large sand-sifting cichlids of the genus Taenilethrinops and catching any invertebrates the bigger fish stirs up and misses. They adapt readily to aquarium fare, however, although Daphnia or other plankters should be included in their diets.

Another fish to be recommended is Chilotilapia rhoadesi. This is another somewhat larger fish that grows up into the 20cm range, but like Cyrtocara moorii gets along well in the community tank. This fish is a snail eater that is often found among Vallisneria beds in the wild, where it picks off young snails. This habit makes it a very useful fish in the aquarium of course, but unfortunately Chilotilapia rhoadesi is not widely available and you may have trouble locating it. Try dropping into the local cichlid specialty shops (Gold Aquarium or Franco’s Aquarium) or any of the larger aquarium stores (like Riverfront), as they do carry the fish, but only on occasion. A club breeder may also have young for sale, so ask around. This fish really deserves to be more popular than it is, as it is a magnificent fish – iridescent blue with yellow on the dorsal and anal fins.


Two other fish that may be included in this tank are only recommended with some trepidation. First is the very popular “electric blue hap”, Sciaenochromis fryeri. Although not particularly aggressive, this fish is a piscivore and will likely eat any young fish in the tank (this may be a blessing however). The males may also become hyperdominant and prevent the other fishes from showing their best colors. This is not likely to happen in my experience but others have reported it. For this reason it is probably not a good idea to keep this fish with other iridescent blue fishes like Copadichromis azureus and Chilotilapia rhoadesi. But Sciaenochromis fryeri is a spectacularly colored fish and the temptation to include it is probably going to be too strong to resist.

Another piscivore that is peaceable enough to be considered is Nimbochromis venustus, which is the smallest and most peaceable of the Nimbochromis species (but is usually sold as “Haplochromis venustus”). Only include this fish if you are getting pretty brave because it really does push the limits of a “peaceable” fish. I would not consider it as suitable for anything less than a 600L community aquarium. Males of this species develop an attractive blue face and they are also of an impressive size, at 20cm. They make great display fish. It is an ambush predator like its near relative, the popular and commonly seen Nimbochromis livingstonii.

Nimbochromis livingstonii (sold as “Haplochromis livingstoni”) and the other predators of the genus Nimbochromis, as well as those of the genera Champsochromis, Tyrannochromis etc., really should not be considered for this tank. Instead, keep them in a very large community tank of their own (of at least 800 liters capacity). Such a tank would contain a certain degree of mayhem, but it would make a truly magnificent display.


There are also a few mbuna that would be welcome in this tank as they are neither plant eaters nor particularly nasty; for example most of the Labidochromis species. Although these are classed as mbuna, they really are the oddballs of this group. Their diet is almost entirely animal based (plankton and benthic invertebrates) rather than being made up of the algae that forms the bulk of other mbuna diets. As a result, their teeth are quite different from other mbuna, being needle-like “tweezers” rather than spade-like “scrapers”. And because they do not feed on algae, they do not feel compelled to guard their own feeding territory. The result is a fish that is much more sociable than the other mbuna.

The most commonly seen Labidochromis species in local shops is Labidochromis caerulus “Lions’ Cove yellow”, variously known as the “electric yellow” or the “yellow lab”. This fish will likely be one day identified as a separate species, but for now it is regarded as a yellow morph of Labidochromis caerulus. An “electric white” is also available, but this is simply the pale morph of Labidochromis caerulus and a very much less attractive fish. Also available in more specialized shops and from enthusiastic breeders are Labidochromis zebroides (a smaller, black and silver-blue striped species), as well as a few others. All of these fish are quite peaceable. Cross-breeding is a strong possibility, however, so I would keep all the various Labidochromis separate.

Another calm mbuna that could go in this tank is Iodotropheus sprengerae. This fish is almost unique among the aquarium fishes by having a mauve color (at least in some males). A fully colored male can be a very pleasant looking fish, but even they are not as gaudy as many Malawi cichlids. And this fish is very variable in color, with subordinate individuals usually being a plain yellowish brown. Iodotropheus sprengerae is not seen as often as it once was, having been overshadowed by more consistently colorful fishes.


The peaceful cichlid community aquarium is possible provided that one selects the inhabitants carefully and uses a suitably large tank. But remember that “peaceful” is a relative term. Don’t expect your tank to have the harmony of a school of cardinal tetras, but instead, expect an eye-catching display of large, active, and spectacularly colored fishes. Published in Cichlids on and written by Grant Gussie.