Mbuna Cichlids: A Care Guide

Mbuna Cichlids: A Care Guide

Mbuna Cichlids: A Care Guide 


Mbunas are a type of African Cichlid originating from Lake Malawi in eastern Africa. The Mbuna species prefer rocks or caves as their dwelling spaces as this is most like their natural habitat in Lake Malawi. Like most other African Cichlid species, Mbuna varieties are aggressive and should only be kept with other Mbunas to keep aggression to a minimum. Overall, Mbunas are excellent and hardy fish to keep and will add active color to your aquarium. 

Identification and Varieties 

african cichlid for sale

Mbuna Cichlids have many different species that fall into this category. In comparison to other types of African Cichlids, Mbuna Cichlids are some of the most colorful and vibrant species within the African Cichlid family. While Mbuna Cichlids are beautiful and add pops of color, it is important to know the temperament of each species before adding them to your aquarium. Here are a few of the more popular Mbuna Cichlids available. There are many different species besides the ones listed here. 

Auratus Cichlid (Golden Mbuna)

Auratus Cichlids are exceptional Mbuna Cichlids with remarkable color. Young Auratus Cichlids are known for their bright yellow color with black horizontal stripes. As these cichlids mature, males will turn bluish purple. So many Mbuna keepers prefer to get their Mbunas as young because it is enjoyable to watch the transition of colors on the males as they mature. Typically, the alpha male within an aquarium will have even darker and more predominant coloring. 

Blue Zebra Cichlid (Cobalt Blue)

 Blue Zebra Cichlids are another beautiful Mbuna Cichlid. Both males and females have an amazing blue color that is bright and stands out in your aquarium. Males will occasionally get dark blue or black vertical stripes. This usually only occurs on the alpha male or during an aggressive episode. 

Bumblebee Cichlid

 True to its name, Bumblebee Cichlids are known for their yellow and black color patterns. These Mbuna Cichlids have a yellow color like a bumblebee with black vertical stripes that slightly merge in the middle. While these cichlids won't sting you, they are striking in your aquarium. 

Clown Lab Cichlid

 Clown Lab Mbuna Cichlids are very similar in color to Blue Zebra Cichlids. They have a dusty or sky blue color with black vertical stripes around their midsection. Typically the stripes are on males and females, but they do tend to be more pronounced on males. 


Red Zebra Cichlid

 Red Zebra Cichlids are one of the more well-known Mbuna varieties. While they are not a true fire-truck red, they are more orangish-red and bright and vibrant highlights. Males will tend to be brighter in color, and females will be more whitish orange. 

Yellow Lab Cichlid

yellow lab african cihclid

 Yellow Labs are by far the most popular Mbuna Cichlids and arguably the most popular African Cichlid overall. Known for their vibrant highlighter yellow, these cichlids will stand out in any aquarium. Most male Yellow Labs will have a thin black line on their dorsal fins. Yellow Labs tend to be more docile than most Mbuna Cichlids and should be paired carefully. 

Yellow Tail Acei Cichlid

 Yellow Tail Acei Mbuna Cichlids are striking fish that add activity and pops of color into your aquarium. Yellow Tail Acei Cichlids have a deep blue or purple body with yellow fins. Males tend to turn a darker color, almost black, when they are the alpha male, or there is an aggressive episode. 


Demasoni African Cichlid

As mentioned previously, Mbuna African Cichlids are aggressive fish. Typically males will be the most aggressive, and this is especially heightened when they are in the process of establishing a 'tank boss' or if there are females in the tank. It is often suggested to only have males within a Mbuna African Cichlid tank and try to introduce them all at the same time into the tank. Since this particular variety prefers rocks and caves in their environment, having plenty of diversions and hiding places can reduce aggression within the tank. While it is not always possible to completely eliminate aggression, there are methods to help reduce aggression. Unfortunately, aggression is a component of this variety's temperament and should always be closely monitored for the safety and wellbeing of the fish. 

Tank Mates 

Mbuna Cichlids should really only be kept with other Mbuna Cichlids. It is not uncommon for aquarium hobbyists to have a 'species only' tank that is full of a specific type of Mbuna. Due to the aggression level of most Mbuna Cichlids and their habitat requirements, it is typically best to have only Mbunas in an aquarium. If you do desire to have multiple Mbuna species within your aquarium, it is best to get them all at one time and when they are younger (1.5-2"). By getting all of your Mbuna Cichlids at one time and while they are younger, it typically reduces aggression since the fish have grown up together. For cleaning purposes, a Synodontis Catfish or larger Pleco would be well-suited for a Mbuna aquarium. 



Like other African Cichlid varieties, Mbuna African Cichlids can be fed a variety of foods. For dry food, African Cichlid mixes are excellent choices as long as they have a high vegetation content. African Cichlids are prone to compaction, and veggie matter helps alleviate this. Mbuna Cichlids can also be fed frozen or live foods. Blood worms, brine shrimp, and small guppies are a few of the frozen and live foods that are common fed to Mbuna Cichlids. Some have found that feeding frozen or live foods help to cut down on aggression within their Mbuna aquarium. As mentioned with dry foods, it is vital to also include vegetation, like spirulina, into the diet of these cichlids to help reduce compaction and improve got health. 

Water Quality 

red zebra

Mbuna Cichlids are much like other African Cichlids when it comes to water quality. Suggested pH for Mbunas and most other African Cichlids is around or above 7.5. The aquarium temperature should also be around 78F. While a heater is not necessary for an African Cichlid tank, the fish are typically healthier and happier when their water temperature is on the slightly warmer side. Like all fish, frequent water changes and regular filter cleaning should occur to ensure the water is clean. If your Mbuna Cichlids are getting sick or acting odd, water quality should be the first aspect to evaluate. 

Tank Setup 

Mbuna African Cichlids are some of the most beautiful cichlids on the market and having a successful and equally as beautiful aquarium is essential. When choosing an aquarium, keep in mind that Mbuna Cichlids will grow to be about 5-6" in length. Depending on how many you plan to put into your aquarium, you may need a very large tank. Generally speaking, a 55-gallon aquarium is the smallest that any Mbuna Cichlid should be put into. About 10 Mbuna Cichlids could be put into a 55-gallon aquarium. If you plan to have more, you'll need a larger tank. 

Mbuna African Cichlids are rock and cave-dwelling cichlids, so it is important to include rock structures in your aquarium. The type of rock and layout of the rock is your preference. It would also be a good idea to rearrange your structures every so often to keep the cichlids active and disperse dominance. 

Lighting is important for the Mbunas and the health of the aquarium. Keeping your light on no longer than 8-10 hours a day will help reduce the growth of algae. Having periods of no light is essential for the health of the fish. Just like humans must have periods of rest, Mbuna Cichlids need that too. 


Most Mbuna African Cichlids will reach sexual maturity when they've grown to be about 2.5" in length. Once they have reached this point, it should be fairly easy to tell the difference between males and females. Most Mbuna African Cichlids are sexually dimorphic, which means that the males and females are typically two different colors. For example, Kennyi Mbunas are all blue when young and as they mature the males will turn yellow in color. 

Like all other African Cichlids, Mbuna Cichlids are mouthbrooders. This means that the females will hold the eggs and young in their mouth until the babies are able to free swim. If you're looking to breed and raise the young, it is often suggested to separate the female from the eggs or young. It is not uncommon for Mbuna Cichlids to eat their young when they are small. 

Health Care 

Mbuna Cichlids are generally healthy and hardy fish. Similar to other African Cichlids, Mbuna Cichlids are prone to gut compaction when there is limited vegetation in their diet. This can be reduced or eliminated by ensuring that your Mbuna Cichlids have adequate spirulina or another type of vegetation in their diet. 

Mbuna Cichlids are also susceptible to Ich which is a common freshwater parasite. Ich can be treated with a commercially formulated Ich formula. Some hobbyists also recommend dosing the tank with rock salt but this should be done carefully as too high of salinity can be deadly to the fish. 

If there is a lot of aggression among the Mbuna Cichlids within an aquarium, bacterial issues are not uncommon. When the fish fight or are aggressive towards each other, scratches and cuts occur. This can sometimes lead to bacterial infections. 

5 Quick Tips

Start 'em young:

 When you're looking to start a new African Cichlid tank, one of the easiest ways to keep them in my opinion, is to buy them when they're young. Buy them when they're about 1.5-2" long. By doing this, it typically reduces the aggression and leads to a thriving tank versus a fighting tank. 


Avoid very aggressive species like Aurutus and Yellow Tail Acei.


 By avoiding these species, you can reduce aggression within your tank. While these two species are beautiful, they may not be the best choices for a beginner tank or an established aquarium. If you really want these two species, get them as young as possible and raise all of your fish together. You can also have a species-only tank as mentioned previously. 


Rearrange Your Decor When Adding New Fish


If you are adding new fish into an established aquarium, rearrange your decor as much as possible within the tank. By doing this, when adding new fish, it helps to reduce aggression. Rearranging the decor within the tank causes the fish to reestablish their territories and 'pecking order', which gives the new fish a chance within their new environment. 


Buy at least three of the same species to mitigate aggression


By having multiples of the same species within your aquarium or when adding new fish, it tends to keep any aggression within the same species and is not directed towards one single fish in the aquarium. If there is one fish within an aquarium that is constantly receiving aggression, it becomes very hard for it to survive. 


Mbuna Cichlids can be slightly overcrowded. 


Don't use the one inch of fish per gallon of water. This can be increased a bit for Mbuna Cichlids. By overcrowding slightly, Mbunas typically are not able to establish their own territories, which will cause aggression. 

We hope that this care guide helps you keep and raise Mbuna Cichlids. These are some of the most beautiful and active African Cichlids on the market. While they are hardy fish, they still require careful care to ensure they are happy and healthy.