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Fish, Shrimp & Corals


October 29, 2020 | By Eric Nadon

Part 2: Lake Malawi

by Tom Sarac

The continent of Africa is home to Lakes Tanganyika, Malawi, and Victoria, three enormous bodies of water which house a huge variety of fascinating cichlids.

In the second article of this three-part series, an overview of cichlids from Lake Malawi is be provided.

Setup and care:

With over 300 species of Lake Malawi cichlids available, there is no lack of choice for the home aquarium. The variety of colors and sizes that exist presents fishkeepers with the opportunity to keep freshwater tropical fish that easily rival the beauty of marine fish.

Most cichlids from Lake Malawi belong to the Mbuna group. The name Mbuna means “rockfish” in the language of the Tonga people of Malawi. An aquarium setup for communities of Mbuna cichlids typically includes dense rockwork with many caves and high fish stocking rates. Rock decor should be carefully constructed from the bottom glass upwards, using stable rocks to prevent the structure from collapsing. The substrate should consist of sand or fine gravel, and should be added after the stable rock base is put in position (without covering the base rocks). Malawi cichlids are prolific diggers and could easily cause the collapse of rock structures placed on top of the substrate rather than directly on the bottom aquarium glass.


High stocking rates tend to diffuse the frequency with which specimens will be harassed by dominant males, and therefore help prevent fish loss. It is to be expected that this type of community aquarium will feature frequent aggressive gestures and activities, especially by dominant males. Aquariums for Lake Malawi fish communities should be large (1 m / 3’ or more), and at least 50 US Gal. / 200 L or more in volume. Strong, efficient filtration is necessary, as the aquarium will be heavily stocked with fish. Plants are difficult to maintain, as these species are herbivorous and dig the substrate. Some species from the genera Labidochromis and Pseudotropheus may allow potted Vallisneria to survive if they are heavily fed with spirulina tablets and flakes, but this is by no means guaranteed.

It is difficult to state with certainty that any particular species from the genera Labeotropheus, Melanochromis, or Pseudotropheus are more or less aggressive than others. However, species from the genera Cynotilapia and Labidochromis are regarded as being less aggressive. We recommend the following guidelines when choosing inhabitants for a Lake Malawi community aquarium:

  • Incorporate species with different body shapes
  • Select species with different colors
  • Select species from different genera
  • Purchase groups of young fish
  • Provide several females for every male
  • Mix species that are similar in aggressiveness
  • Avoid mixing Lake Malawi cichlids with Lake Tanganyika cichlids

Species of the genus Aulonacara (commonly known as Peacocks), Copadichromis, and Sciaenochromis are brilliantly colored. These species are best kept in harems, with numerous females for each male. Large aquariums are suggested, preferably 1 m / 3’ in length or more, and at least 50 US Gal. / 200 L in volume. They should be fed a typical carnivore-type diet. Tank setups should contain some larger caves along with open areas of fine gravel or sand and patches of Vallisneria spiralis or Vallisneria gigantea.


Water conditions and maintenance:

Temperature requirements are from 24 to 26°C (77 to 80°F) with a GH value of approximately 200 to 280 mg/L and pH values of 7.8 to 8.5. Regular water changes are appreciated by Malawi cichlids. Due to high stocking rates, it is recommended to perform a 25% water change every week.


Strict attention to diet is recommended. The Mbuna group are algae grazers and should receive a diet rich in spirulina tablets and flakes, along with other vegetable matter. Supplementation with Color Enhancing Flakes and vegetable-based frozen food mixes is acceptable, but foods high in protein must be avoided.


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