7 Popular Mbuna Cichlids in 2023 (With Pictures)

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If you are new to the world of fish keeping and are looking for an interesting fish to add to your aquarium, Mbuna cichlids are definitely worth considering.

I love the wide range of colors and patterns, making it really easy to find one that catches your eye.

Additionally, Mbuna cichlids are relatively easy to care for, making them an excellent choice for beginners.

In this article, I will introduce you to 7 of the most popular Mbuna cichlids, covering their unique characteristics, natural habitats, and ideal tank setups.

Having diverse personalities and appearances, these fish will undoubtedly bring life and color to your home aquarium.

From the captivating Red Zebra Cichlid to the striking blue Johanni Cichlid, each species in this selection showcases the unmatched beauty and allure of Mbuna cichlids.

Dive in with me as I explore the fascinating world of these extraordinary fish and help you decide which ones would be the perfect addition to your home aquarium.

Origin and Habitat

Found primarily in Lake Malawi, Mbuna cichlids inhabit the rocky areas along the coastlines.

With over a thousand species of cichlids in Lake Malawi, 13 genera are classified as Mbunas.

These cichlids live among the rocks and crevices, using their specialized teeth to pick at algae and other food sources in the wild.

The rocky habitat provides the Mbuna with protection from predators and ample opportunities to feed on algae and small invertebrates that live among the rocks.

Mbuna cichlids are also known for their tendency to move and rearrange the rocks in their environment.

This behavior is thought to be related to their feeding habits, as they search for food, but it can also serve as a way to establish territories and attract mates.

Behavior and Social Dynamics

The name “Mbuna” translates to “rockfish” in the local African language Nyasa (Mboja).

These fish are known for their territorial nature and aggression, particularly when defending their living spaces.

For this reason, it is essential to provide ample hiding spots and large tank sizes in a home aquarium setting.

Mbuna cichlids are also recognized for their unique breeding method.

Females are maternal mouthbrooders, which means that they carry their fertilized eggs in their mouths until the eggs hatch.

This behavior not only helps to protect the offspring but also allows for higher survival rates among the fry.

When it comes to suitable tank mates, it is essential to choose other species that can coexist peacefully with the aggressive tendencies of Mbuna cichlids.

Tank Setup and Requirements

To replicate their native habitat and reduce stress, it is essential to set up a properly designed aquarium with plenty of rocks and caves where these fish can hide.

A species-only tank is highly recommended and will help minimize aggression among tank mates.

There are some Mbuna cichlids that are more tolerant of tank mates.

An appropriate tank size for keeping Mbuna cichlids is a minimum of 55 gallons.

Maintaining water parameters is crucial for their health and longevity.

They thrive in water temperatures between 77-84°F, a pH level of 7.5-8.4, and an ammonium nitrite and ammonia content as close to 0ppm as possible.

Diet and Nutrition

Mbuna cichlids primarily have a plant-based diet, eating algae, biofilm, and plant matter in the tank.

They should also be offered a commercial cichlid diet while providing fresh veggies such as romaine lettuce, zucchini, cucumber, carrots, spinach, and arugula to supplement their nutrition.

Suitable Tank Mates

Mbuna cichlids should only be housed with other Mbuna or other cichlid species from Lake Malawi.

Mixing Mbuna with other cichlids from different regions can lead to aggression and territorial disputes.

It is also important to avoid mixing Mbuna with smaller, more docile fish, as they are likely to be bullied or eaten.

7 Popular Mbuna Cichlids

  • Red Zebra: Bright red coloration and aggressive.
  • Demasoni Cichlid: Blue and black coloration and aggressive behavior.
  • Kenyi Cichlid: Blue and yellow coloration and aggressive.
  • Electric Yellow Cichlid: Bright yellow coloration and peaceful temperament.
  • Acei Cichlid: Blue and black coloration and peaceful.
  • Rusty Cichlid: Brown and orange coloration and peaceful.
  • Johanni Cichlid: Sky to dark blue colors with a checkerboard pattern (Males) Yellow-orange (Females) Semi-aggressive

Red Zebra Cichlid

Red Zebra Cichlid

The Red Zebra cichlid is a stunning fish that never fails to catch the eye with its bright red and orange coloration.

I love this fish!

Growing up to a maximum size of around 4 inches, they may be small, but they more than makeup for it with their bold and aggressive behavior.

As members of the Mbuna cichlid group, Red Zebras are primarily herbivorous and require a diet that consists of a mix of algae, vegetable matter, and high-quality cichlid pellets or flakes.

While they can coexist peacefully with other non-aggressive Mbuna cichlids, introducing them to other fish should be done with caution due to their tendency to get territorial and aggressive.

So, if you’re looking for a visually striking and engaging fish that will never bore you, the Red Zebra cichlid is a perfect choice.

Demasoni Cichlid

Demasoni Cichlid

These small yet powerful Mbuna cichlids are native to Lake Malawi in East Africa and are known for their striking blue and black coloration.

These are small cichlids that reach between 2.5 to 3 inches in length.

But be warned, they can be aggressive and territorial, making them a challenge to keep.

To provide the best care for your Demasoni Cichlid, make sure to provide a spacious tank with plenty of hiding places, such as rocks and caves.

They need at least 55 gallons of space for a small group, and even more, if you plan on adding more aggressive species.

As herbivores, their diet should consist of a mix of algae, vegetable matter, and high-quality cichlid pellets or flakes.

But don’t forget to mix up their diet for complete and balanced nutrition.

It’s important to keep Demasoni Cichlids with other Mbuna or cichlid species from Lake Malawi to prevent territorial disputes.

So, if you’re up for the challenge of keeping these feisty fish, the Demasoni Cichlid is a captivating and engaging choice for your aquarium.

Kenyi Cichlid

Kenyi Cichlid

The Kenyi Cichlid (Metriaclima lombardoi) is famous for its vibrant yellow (males) and blue color with vertical bands (females)

They can grow up to 5 inches in length and have a highly aggressive nature, so they should be kept with other aggressive Mbunas in a large tank.

In the wild, Kenyi Cichlids inhabit rocky areas along the shoreline and in the shallower waters of the lake, where they can swim and hide among the crevices and caves in the rocky formations.

Kenyi Cichlids require a spacious tank of at least 55 gallons.

The Kenyi cichlid is a herbivore fish that feeds mainly on algae and plankton in the wild.

To keep them healthy and happy in your home aquarium, it’s important to mimic their natural diet as closely as possible.

That means feeding them food that’s specifically designed for herbivores, which they will gladly accept.

While Kenyi cichlids will eat most prepared foods, a herbivore diet is the way to go if you want them to thrive.

Electric Yellow Cichlid

Electric Yelow Lab

The Electric Yellow cichlid (Labidochromis caeruleus), also known as the Yellow Lab cichlid, is a popular Mbuna cichlid.

Another of my all-time favorite fish!

In the wild, Electric Yellow cichlids inhabit rocky areas along the shoreline and in the shallower waters of the lake, where they can swim and hide among the crevices and caves in the rocky formations.

They are a peaceful and relatively docile fish, and they are known for their unique feeding habits, which involve scraping algae off of rocks with their specialized teeth.

The Yellow Lab is one of the smallest Mbuna cichlids reaching a size of 4 inches.

They require a minimum tank size of 40 gallons with a sandy substrate and plenty of rocks.

The Electric Yellow cichlid is a peaceful and relatively docile fish that can adapt to a wide range of water conditions, making it a good choice for beginners.

It is also a popular choice for community aquariums, as it can coexist peacefully with other non-aggressive fish species.

The Electric Yellow cichlid is a fascinating fish that feasts on small invertebrates like crustaceans and snails in its natural habitat.

But don’t worry about finding those exact foods for your aquarium – these adaptable fish will accept pretty much any food you give them!

However, to provide them with the best possible nutrition, it’s a good idea to use a commercial food designed specifically for Rift Lake cichlids as a staple in their diet.

To mix things up, you can also supplement their diet with plenty of frozen or live food, like bloodworms and brine shrimp, and even some fresh blanched vegetables and algae tablets.

Acei Cichlid

Acei Cichlid

Prepare to be captivated by the Pseudotropheus Acei Cichlid, a beautiful fish that calls the Northwestern areas of Lake Malawi in Zambia, Africa home.

With their vibrant blue and yellow coloration and eye-catching banded markings on their fins and body, they’re a long-time favorite among African Cichlid enthusiasts.

While they can become aggressive towards their own species without enough space to claim a suitable territory, they’re generally considered peaceful.

In fact, some hobbyists have had success crowding African Cichlids together in the same tank to create a balance and spread out any aggression.

Males are easy to differentiate from females due to the egg spots on the back edge of their anal fin.

These are larger cichlids of about 7 inches in length.

To keep them happy and healthy, a tank of at least 75 gallons with a fine sand substrate and multiple rocky formations is recommended.

As herbivores, Acei Cichlids love grazing on algae-covered rocks and submerged wood, so make sure to provide them with a quality herbivore flake or pellet food and algae wafers as well.

While not as well-suited for a planted aquarium environment as some African Cichlids, these stunning fish will add a pop of color and interest to any aquarium.

Rusty Cichlid

This species is known for its brown and orange coloration and peaceful temperament.

They can grow up to 4 inches in length and are a popular choice for community aquariums.

In the aquarium, Rusty Cichlids require a spacious tank with plenty of hiding places, such as rocks and caves.

A tank of at least 40 gallons is recommended for a small group of Rusty Cichlids, with larger tanks required for larger groups or more aggressive species.

As for its diet, the Rusty Cichlid is an omnivore and will eat a variety of foods including flakes, pellets, frozen foods, and live foods.

It is important to provide a balanced diet that includes both plant and animal matter to ensure the health and wellbeing of the fish.

Johanni Cichlid

Johanni Cichlid

The stunning Johanni Cichlid, a member of the Mbuna family of African Cichlids will take your breath away!

Endemic to Lake Malawi, this species starts off with yellow-orange coloration when young, but matures into brilliant sky to dark blue colors with a checkerboard pattern of alternating light and dark patches for males.

Females, on the other hand, keep their yellow-orange coloration even as they mature.

While they only reach a maximum size of 4 inches, don’t let their small stature fool you – they can be quite aggressive and will need plenty of tank room.

A 30 to 40-gallon tank is recommended for one male and two females, as cichlids need rock hiding places that take up space.

For a mixed African Cichlid tank, even larger volumes will be needed.

Johanni Cichlids are omnivores that eat both plant and animal matter, accepting pellets, high-quality flake, spirulina, and frozen or live brine shrimp.

To keep them healthy and looking their best, it’s important to provide a varied diet of both plant and animal material of exceptionally high quality.

Just be careful not to overfeed, as this species is subject to Malawi Bloat.

While overfeeding isn’t definitively linked to this condition, it may increase the risk.

So if you’re looking for a stunning and captivating fish, the Johanni Cichlid is the perfect addition to your aquarium!

Should You Consider Mbuna Cichlids?

Mbuna cichlids are a fascinating and vibrant species of freshwater fish that hail from the depths of Lake Malawi in Africa.

These fish are renowned for their unique patterns and striking colors, making them a popular choice for aquarium enthusiasts.

However, their feisty and territorial nature can make them a challenging species to keep.

Nonetheless, with the right research and care, Mbuna cichlids can make a fantastic addition to a community aquarium.

When paired with compatible tank mates and housed in a suitable environment, these fish can thrive in captivity and bring a burst of color and personality to any aquarium.

So, whether you’re a seasoned aquarium enthusiast or just starting out, don’t overlook the Mbuna cichlid for your next aquarium project.

With their captivating colors and intriguing behavior, these fish are sure to capture the attention and admiration of anyone who sees them.


How big do Mbuna cichlids get?

There are many different types of Mbuna cichlids. Some stay quite small at around 4 inches while others can get quite big at 7 inches. You will need to get bigger tanks for larger species. Smaller Mbuna cichlids can be housed in a 40-gallon tank but the bigger ones will need at least a 75-gallon and more.

How many Mbuna cichlids should be kept together?

A good ratio is 1 male to 2 females however most fish keepers suggest a ratio of one male to 3 females. This is to avoid aggression and territory fights.

What are the least aggressive Mbuna cichlids?

The most common and least aggressive Mbuna cichlids are the Electric Yellow Lab and the Pseudotropheus Acei Cichlid. There are some others that are generally peaceful like the Rusty Cichlid but each fish is an individual so even your most peaceful Mbuna’s can be aggressive.

Can you mix mbuna cichlids?

Yes, you can. Just keep in mind how aggressive each type is and always try to not add fish that look the same.

How long do Mbuna cichlids hold for?

Female cichlids hold the eggs in their mouths anywhere between 21 to 30 days. During this time she will not eat at all and chooses to rather protect her eggs.

How many babies do Mbuna cichlids have?

Each batch of fry can contain between 25-35 babies. However, some females produce more fry then that so this is just an average.

What age do Mbunas breed?

Mbuna cichlid mature at about 8 months of age after which they will be able to breed. Because they are mouth brooders, it is advisable to fatten them up before breeding her as she will not eat anything while she is holding eggs.

Is sand or gravel better for Mbuna cichlids?

Sand is definitely better for a Mbuna cichlid tank as this is the kind of substrate found in their natural habitat. They sift through the sand looking for food. You can also use gravel but I think they prefer sand.

After reading this article, if you want other options as far as African cichlids are concerned then maybe the Peacock cichlids will tickle your fancy.

Photo of author


Irma Bense is the founder of BetterFishkeeping.com. She has over 42 years of experience in keeping fish.She has kept both freshwater and saltwater fish through the years.She has extensive knowledge in breeding numerous species of fish from Show Guppies, Cory Catfish, German Blue Rams to Apistogrammas.You can learn more about Irma on the 'About' page.

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