Mbuna cichlids represent some of the most instinctual, active, colorful fish within the cichlid family. They thrive in the shallow sand and rocky bottoms of Lake Malawi. However, they have specific needs that their owner must be willing to meet (especially wild caught species in comparison to local tank-raised species).
As a general rule of thumb for Mbuna, the more beautiful and interesting the color of the fish, the more aggressive the fish will be. Don’t confuse Mbuna for their larger, more peaceful cousins, Haplochromines and Peacocks, which also live in Lake Malawi in Africa. Mbuna do not mix well with Haps and Peacocks as they prefer a rocky habitat in their tank, which provides lots of hiding places and tunnels for them to explore. Haps and Peacocks, since they are much larger, prefer open water with limited rock.
Before we get to the ideal stocking list for a Mbuna tank, first, make sure Mbuna is the fish for you. Mbuna are harem-breeders, meaning that every male will seek out several females. Even if you don’t have any interest in breeding, the fish will naturally do this. If you, the owner, don’t give the male females within his species, he will seek outside. Since some species from Lake Malawi are endangered, hobbyists want to protect the purity of the species, and at all costs, avoid hybridization. The problem with hybridization is that hobbyists cannot predict the behavior of the fish, specifically its level of aggression. Also, if you have too few females, the male will chase the females you do have continually. This behavior is the male’s way of earning breeding rights. You’ll want to spread this attention out over several females, so that one in particular doesn’t get singled out—she might just get chased until she’s so tired and worn out, she gets sick and dies.
Remember, Mbuna are not community fish; however, they do “school,” the male will often hover around his flock of females (harem). Some of this behavior sounds overwhelming, but the most interesting behavior occurs as the fish mature and start breeding. The males will often lip lock and swim in a continuous circle latched together in order to earn the rights to a female. Both sexes will color up, get brighter and more beautiful, when breeding. Mbuna are also frequent breeders. In my personal tank, I had one Labidochromic Caeruleus (yellow lab) hold three times in two months, producing approximately sixty fry (baby fish).
Now, pick your tank. Mbuna create territories, areas in the tank that they defend (sometimes to the death). Most often, the fish create these invisible barriers side-to-side, which makes the length of your tank the most important feature. Mbuna tend to hover in the mid-low range of the tank (the bottom half), so height is not as important. Cichlids, in general, are a very messy fish; they produce a lot of waste. They also have large oxygen needs. To account for these two issues, a tank with a large surface area is best (long and wide, like breeder tanks). You also need to make sure to overfilter the tank (that the water in the tank will cycle ten times per day). Be prepared to do large, weekly water changes. Chemicals can be used to delay this process, but there is no better medicine for a fish that fresh, clean water. In general, the minimum tank for most Mbuna species is a 55 gallon tank (48 x 12 x 18 inches). There are some dwarf species (such as Pseudotropheus Saulosi or Pseudotropheus Demasoni) that can live in a 40 breeder (36 x 18 x 18).
Along with the tank, stocking must also be chosen with care. Think of what colors you want in your tank and how many fish you’d like. Since Mbuna are harem-breeders, you cannot have a multitude of species in one tank. You need to have approximately 4-5 females for every male. When I say “need,” I mean that the male will not cause the death of the females, and will coexist with other species. Mbuna cichlids often have a higher conspecific aggression (aggression to those within its species and those who look similar). The more docile (docile for Mbuna that is) can do less (for example, yellow labs are often kept in trios, 1 male with 2 females), and the more aggressive species will need more (for example, a single Pseudotropheus Crabro male is best with 7-8 female). So, when choosing your stocking, keep in mind how large the fish will grow, how aggressive it is, and how many females you need to get. Sexing is difficult so often you overstock juveniles, and remove excess males when you vent them (observe the sexual organs to discern the sex of the fish).
In a standard 55 gallon, I recommend three species (of 1 male and 5 females each). I would avoid the highly aggressive species like Pseudotropheus Crabro and Melanochromis Auratus. The P. Crabro (bumblebee) is a beautiful fish, but it grows 8” long and is extremely aggressive. The M. Auratus is not as attractive, to me personally, but it is a common fish to see in pet stores, and can destroy your tank (kill all of your fish, wreck decorations, etc.). For an easy, colorful stocking that will still be interesting to watch (breeding behavior), I would choose (1m, 5f) Metriaclima Estherae (red zebra, which is actually more orange and males will be blue or peach-colored), (1m, 3f) Pseudotropheus Acei (yellow with blue tail), and (1m, 5f) Cynotilapia Afra (blue-barred). As another example, (1m, 4f) Labidochromic Caeruleus (yellow with black bars on fins), (2m, 10f) Pseudotropheus Demasoni (blue-barred) (so many more fish because this species is a dwarf species and the overstocking for this specific species curbs their conspecific aggression), and (1m, 5f) Iodotropheus Sprengerae (Rusties, brown and purple) OR (1m, 5f). Either of these two lists would make a nice stocking list for a Mbuna tank.
Things to be careful with when stocking: Blue-barred species will feel threatened by each other (since they look alike). Metriaclima males are not tolerant of each other. Even if the species look completely different, there might still be some fighting (chasing, nipping, etc.). Also, Metriclima Estherae and Labidochromis Caeruleus (yellow lab, one of the most commonly seen Mbuna) often interbreed. Even if you give males the proper amount of females, it can still happen. However, these species are gorgeous and are some of the brightest Mbuna. So, if you keep them together, you shouldn’t keep any fry from the tank because you cannot know if the babies are the result of hybridization or not. Hybrid Red zebra x yellow lab fish are notoriously aggressive (more so than both of their parents).
Stocking is one of the most difficult steps in the fish keeping process. What do you do? I would join a cichlid site online, one that is active with lots of members, such as cichlid-forum.com. You can ask all of your questions there, post your stocking list, etc. First and foremost, do not trust the big box chain pet stores—they are a business and trying to make money, which is fine, but they will often mislead you. Even a single African cichlid should not be kept in a tank smaller than a 36” long tank. Just because the fish swims around and eats, doesn’t mean it’s happy—it could just be surviving. Don’t impulse buy—do your research so you don’t get saddled with species hobbyists refer to as “tank killers” (fish that, upon reaching maturity, can and will kill all the other fish in your tank, perhaps overnight, such as the Melanochromis Auratus). Do what you have to, to ensure you and your fish are happy with the end result.