The Mbuna group is endemic to Lake Malawi; their name stands for rock-dweller in the native language, so these fish are most at home among large rocks along the shoreline of the lake. You have seen them most likely in videos where there are hundreds of them bunched in one place, but contrary to this, they are very territorial and very few species tend to school together; but since the real-estate of the rock areas are in high demand they will often be found in clusters.

As you can see Mbuna are found in high concentrations

They come in different shapes and sizes; most of them are adapted to grazing algae from the rocky habitat and are all vegetarian with very few exceptions that are omnivore and 1 single genus piscivore.

Aquarium hobbyists crave Mbunas mostly due to the beautiful coloring that they present; while most of them have males that are colorful, there are over 100 species that have females also colored.

The Mbuna group can be broken down into several genus levels:

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  • Cyathochromis
  • Cynotilapia
  • Genyochromis
  • Gephyrochromis
  • Iodotropheus
  • Labeotropheus 
  • Labidochromis
  • Melanochromis   
  • Metriaclima   
  • Petrotilapia  
  • Pseudotropheus
  • Tropheops

These genus contain countless species and new one are discovered by expeditions and scientists.

I have tried to compile a list of all Cichlid Species in Lake Malawi, you can download it or search your favorite:

Keeping Mbuna in Aquarium

Mbunas are very easy to keep in aquariums, they require very little intervention but in order to keep them successfully you will need to have some basics covered. Number one is space, they love to have space to hide, court and fight, thus a large aquarium is required. Also you will need to be careful how many to buy and what species play well with other species.

Tank requirements

  • A minimum 75 gallons (300 liters) is what I would recommend as a bare minimum.
  • Aquarium must be long and wide, height is non-important for mbunas as they prefer actual square footage over levels.
  • Plenty of rocks. Even if you feel there are enough rocks there, you can always add more, the fish will be grateful.
  • Fine sand as gravel. Use only fine sand for them, since they are always digging around, a fine sand will make them more prone to behave like in nature. Maximum of 1 mm diameter for sand.
  • The tank lighting should be minimal. Foe example a single neon for a 75 gallon is enough since they prefer dimmer lights compared to high intensity ones.

Keeping/Maintenance requirements

  • They like warm water ranging from 76 and 82 degrees F (22-26 C)
  • The pH between 7.8 and 8.6
  • The water hardness should be hard
  • Food should be mostly Vegetarian based (algae-spirulina) with alternation (1-2 days per week) of food that is a bit richer in animal protein once every few days.
  • Water changes should be done each week 50% to keep water quality.

Mbuna tips

  • These are wonderful fishes with most interesting behavior. But in order to see that behavior and understand it you will need to do some reading about the different genus and species so you will understand how to keep them and how to successfully breed them.
  • Most mbunas should be kept in extended families of 2-3 males (one dominant and 2 subdominant males) paired with 7-10 females. This way you will limit aggression and you will be able to see how they behave in nature.
  • Try to read before buying a species, you will see that there are some of them that grow only to 6 cm and some gro upwards to 15 cm.
  • Some that can be kept with several different species and some that are prone to aggression towards others.

I love mbunas and they are the kind of fish that will make you read more about them and make you want to research them so you can understand all the behavior that they depict in aquariums.