A Journey of Discovery

By Sunil Dcosta*

The Colourful Mbuna Cichlids of Lake Malawi

Mbuna cichlids are a group of cichlid fish that are native to Lake Malawi. The name “Mbuna” translates to “rockfish” in the local language, and this group of cichlids is known for their vibrant colours, complex social behaviours, and their affinity for rocky habitats. They are one of the most popular groups of cichlids among aquarium hobbyists due to their unique personalities and stunning colouration.

Mbuna cichlids are generally smaller than other Malawi cichlid species, with most species reaching a maximum size of 4-5 inches (10-13 cm). They are also more aggressive and territorial than other cichlid species, which makes them challenging to keep in a community aquarium. As a result, it’s recommended to keep Mbuna cichlids in a species-specific tank or with other Mbuna cichlid species that are similar in size and temperament.

In addition to their territorial nature, Mbuna cichlids are also known for their unique social behaviours, including their tendency to form hierarchies and establish territories among their rocky habitats. They are also highly intelligent and can recognize their owners, as well as other fish in their environment.

Overall, Mbuna cichlids are a fascinating group of fish that require a specific set of care requirements and a carefully planned aquarium set up to thrive. With the right setup and care, however, they can make a colourful and entertaining addition to any cichlid enthusiast’s collection.

Why Lake Malawi cichlids are known in India?

In India, African cichlids are not very commonly kept as aquarium fish, and therefore, their popularity is relatively low. However, among the three African Great Lakes, Lake Malawi cichlids are generally more commonly available and popular in the Indian aquarium trade than the cichlids from Lake Tanganyika and Lake Victoria.

This is because Lake Malawi cichlids are known for their bright and varied colours, as well as their relative ease of care in captivity, making them more attractive and accessible to hobbyists. In contrast, the cichlids from Lake Tanganyika and Lake Victoria are less commonly found in the Indian aquarium trade and may require more specialized care.

That being said, it is important to note that the availability and popularity of African cichlids may vary depending on the specific region and market within India.

Setting up of Malawi Cichlid Tank

Setting up a Malawi cichlid tank requires careful planning and consideration of several factors to ensure the health and well-being of the fish. Here are the essential steps and requirements for setting up a Malawi cichlid tank:

  1. Tank Size: The minimum recommended tank size for a Malawi cichlid tank is 55 gallons (208 litres), but it is recommended to go larger if possible. These fish are territorial and can grow quite large, so a larger tank will provide more swimming room and reduce aggression.
  2. Filtration: Adequate filtration is essential for a Malawi cichlid tank. A canister or hang-on-back filter rated for at least twice the volume of the tank is recommended, along with a powerhead or wave maker to ensure proper water flow.
  3. Substrate: A sandy substrate is recommended, as Malawi cichlids like to sift through sand to find food and build nests. A depth of 2-3 inches is sufficient.
  4. Decorations: Malawi cichlids appreciate plenty of hiding places and territories, so it’s a good idea to include rocks, caves, and other decorations that provide structure and cover. Be sure to avoid decorations with sharp edges that can injure the fish.
  5. Water Parameters: Malawi cichlids require hard, alkaline water with a pH of 7.8-8.6 and a temperature of 75-80°F (24-27°C). It is important to monitor water parameters regularly and perform water changes of 25% or more weekly to maintain water quality.
  6. Lighting: A moderate to high level of lighting is recommended to encourage the growth of algae and promote natural grazing behaviour.
  7. Fish Selection: Malawi cichlids are aggressive and territorial, so it’s important to research compatible species and select fish that are similar in size and temperament. Overstocking and mixing different species can lead to aggression and stress.

By following these essential steps and requirements, you can set up a thriving Malawi cichlid tank that provides a healthy and stimulating environment for your fish.

Species found in Lake Malawi

Lake Malawi is home to a diverse array of cichlid fish species, with over 1,000 species identified so far. Here are some of the most popular and well-known species of Malawi cichlids found in the aquarium trade:

  1. Electric Yellow Cichlid (Labidochromis caeruleus)
  2. Red Zebra Cichlid (Maylandia estherae)
  3. OB Peacock Cichlid (Aulonocara sp.)
  4. Bumblebee Cichlid (Pseudotropheus crabro)
  5. Acei Cichlid (Pseudotropheus sp.)
  6. Demasoni Cichlid (Pseudotropheus demasoni)
  7. Kenyi Cichlid (Metriaclima lombardoi)
  8. Johanni Cichlid (Melanochromis johannii)
  9. Livingstonii Cichlid (Nimbochromis livingstonii)
  10. Auratus Cichlid (Melanochromis auratus)

These species vary in appearance, behaviour, and care requirements, so it is important to research each species before selecting them for your tank. It is also worth noting that the taxonomy of Malawi cichlids is complex and constantly evolving, with new species and variations being identified regularly.

Lake Malawi cichlids: Diet

Lake Malawi cichlids are primarily carnivorous fish, and their diet should consist of a variety of high-quality protein-rich foods. In the wild, they feed on a mix of small fish, crustaceans, and insects.

In the aquarium, a balanced diet for Malawi cichlids should include a mix of:

  1. High-quality cichlid pellets or flakes: These should make up the bulk of their diet and provide a complete and balanced source of nutrition.
  2. Frozen or live foods: Bloodworms, brine shrimp, krill, and small pieces of fish or shrimp are all excellent sources of protein that can be fed as occasional treats or as a supplement to their regular diet.
  3. Vegetables and algae: Some Malawi cichlids will also graze on algae and vegetable matter in their natural habitat, so it is a good idea to offer them some vegetable-based foods as well. Spirulina flakes or algae wafers can be a good source of vegetable matter for Malawi cichlids.

It is important to avoid feeding Malawi cichlids a diet that is too high in fat or low-quality protein, as this can lead to health problems such as bloating, obesity, and poor growth. It’s also important to avoid overfeeding, as Malawi cichlids have a tendency to overeat and can quickly become overweight if given too much food. A good rule of thumb is to feed them small, frequent meals throughout the day rather than one large meal.

Lake Malawi Cichlids: The Most Common Disease

Malawi bloat is a common and potentially deadly disease that affects cichlids from Lake Malawi, including many of the Mbuna cichlid species. It is caused by a variety of factors, including poor water quality, overfeeding, and feeding a diet that is too high in fat or protein.

The disease is characterized by a bloated abdomen, loss of appetite, lethargy, and difficulty breathing. As the disease progresses, the fish may develop clamped fins, and a sunken belly, and eventually die if left untreated.

Malawi bloat is thought to be caused by an imbalance in the fish’s gut bacteria, which can occur when the fish is stressed or when the aquarium conditions are poor. The condition is more common in captive fish than in their wild counterparts, as they are exposed to a more limited diet and a less diverse range of micro-organisms in their environment.

To prevent Malawi bloat, it is important to maintain good water quality, avoid overfeeding, and provide a varied and balanced diet that includes both animal and vegetable matter. It is also important to avoid overcrowding the aquarium and to provide adequate filtration and water flow.

Treatment of Malawi Bloat

The treatment of Malawi bloat involves a combination of steps to address the underlying causes of the disease and alleviate the symptoms. Here are some common treatment options:

  1. Improve Water Quality: Maintaining good water quality is essential for preventing and treating Malawi bloat. Perform frequent partial water changes, test the water regularly for ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate levels, and ensure that the aquarium is not overcrowded.
  2. Reduce Feeding: Overfeeding is a common cause of Malawi bloat. Reduce the frequency and amount of food that you feed your fish and switch to a high-quality, protein-rich food that is specifically formulated for cichlids.
  3. Use Epsom Salt: Adding Epsom salt to the aquarium can help alleviate the symptoms of Malawi bloat. Epsom salt can help reduce swelling and improve the fish’s ability to absorb nutrients. Add 1 tablespoon of Epsom salt per 10 gallons of water.
  4. Use Antibiotics: Antibiotics can help address the underlying bacterial infection that causes Malawi bloat. Metronidazole and Furan-2 are common antibiotics used to treat the disease. Follow the instructions on the label for dosing and duration.
  5. Isolate the Affected Fish: Isolating the affected fish in a hospital tank can prevent the disease from spreading to other fish in the aquarium. Provide a clean and stress-free environment in the hospital tank and monitor the fish’s condition closely.

It is important to note that the treatment of Malawi bloat can be challenging and may require a multi-faceted approach.

Maintenance of a Malawi Tank

Maintaining a Malawi cichlid tank requires regular attention and effort to ensure the health and well-being of the fish. Here are some key maintenance tasks that are required for a Malawi tank:

  1. Water Changes: Regular water changes are essential for maintaining good water quality in the aquarium. Aim to change 20-30% of the water every week using a siphon to remove any debris and waste from the substrate.
  2. Filtration: A powerful and efficient filtration system is essential for a Malawi cichlid tank. Ensure that the filter is properly sized for the tank and that it is cleaned regularly to prevent clogging.
  3. Testing: Test the water regularly for ammonia, nitrite, nitrate, pH, and other parameters to ensure that the water is within the acceptable range for cichlids. Adjust the water chemistry as needed using appropriate additives and supplements like Seachem Safe.
  4. Feeding: Provide a varied and balanced diet for the cichlids that includes both animal and vegetable matter. Avoid overfeeding and remove any uneaten food from the tank to prevent water quality issues.
  5. Aquarium Decor: Use appropriate aquarium decor, such as rocks, caves, and plants, to provide hiding places and territories for the cichlids. Ensure that the decor is cleaned regularly to prevent the buildup of waste and debris.
  6. Monitoring: Keep an eye on the behaviour and appearance of the cichlids to detect any signs of illness or stress. Address any issues promptly to prevent them from escalating.
  7. Quarantine: Quarantine any new fish or plants before adding them to the main aquarium to prevent the introduction of disease or parasites.


Malawi cichlids are a popular and fascinating group of fish that are known for their vibrant colours, unique personalities, and engaging behaviour. They require a specific set of conditions to thrive, including a large tank with plenty of rock work and hiding places, high water quality, and a varied and balanced diet. While they can be challenging to care for, Malawi cichlids are highly rewarding fish to keep and can provide years of enjoyment and entertainment for aquarists of all levels. With proper care and attention, Malawi cichlids can make a beautiful and dynamic addition to any aquarium.

* Mr. Sunil Dcosta is a Proprietor (www.aquafi shcare.com). Mob.: +91-9821798612.

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