Home | Aquarium Equipment | Setting a Tank Up for Mbuna – Rock-Dwelling Cichlids of Lake Malawi

Setting a Tank Up for Mbuna – Rock-Dwelling Cichlids of Lake Malawi

PolitHey out there! This time around I’d like to talk about setting up a tank for Mbuna, or “rock dwellers”. You can find these colorful fish in the any of the three rift lakes of Africa, but for this blog we will talk about the preferences of species from Lake Malawi.

First, the tank. Larger is better for a couple reasons. A 55 gallon is nice, but a 75 is better for these fish, with its 18 inch width. narrow tanks can be a pain since you’ll want a lot of rock for these fish. The second reason would be that the more room you give them the easier it will be to control aggression. I was once told that if you crowd these fish, they wouldn’t be as aggressive, not being able to single out others to target and bully.  I have seen Mbuna tanks with 12 to 20 fish dwindle down to 4 to 5 fish due to dominant fish. I think it depends on the species and particular fish that you’re trying to house together more, and I don’t think crowding is ever good advice. Last but not least, the larger the tank the more choices you have when it comes time to choose livestock.

Petrotilapia. spOnce you have chosen your tank, move on to the gravel. Your choice in substrate is depends on your preferences with color and texture,and also if you have any issues with pH shift. If you have softer, more acidic water or water with little buffering capacity, then you may want to try crushed coral or some of the buffered substrates designed for African Cichlids. These gravel types will help to maintain a higher pH and hardness, as is desired by these fish.  I prefer sand and other finer grade substrate over pebbles, but that is a matter of personal preference.

Next, look at the equipment you’ll need.  Look for a heater with four to five watts per gallon. You shouldn’t have problems with temperature fluctuations if you choose a heater with enough power. Make sure the model you choose is fully submersible, and position it horizontally to the intake of the filter. Set the temp at 76F to 78F. The warmer the water, in my experience, more aggressive these fish tend to be. Also If youset the temperature too much higher, oxygen levels in the tank may become too low. I prefer 76F. Invest in a good internal thermometer…it will give a more accurate reading than an external one.

Filtration is next on the shopping list. I personally prefer to turn my tank (water) over 8 to 10 times an hour, and you can find the GPH rating on the packaging of each filter. Providing such a turnover rate helps with keeping the aquarium clean and the fish strong and healthy. I really can’t say which filter is better than another.  I have kept and used Rena canister filters, Aquaclear power filters and Emperor power filters, and they have all performed adequately and reliably for my tanks.

Now we move onto decorating the aquarium. If you don’t care for the natural look, do it up with ornaments and plastic plants as you prefer. I prefer the natural look, with rocks and caves and the occassional piece of driftwood to break things up. I once tried live plants, but as I learned it will usually be a big waste of money. These guys see live plants as a salad bar, and they still try to eat plastic and silk ones too.

Don’t forget your lighting. From experience, I find that bright bulbs tend to wash out the brilliant colors Mbuna show. I like 10,000K and that’s what I run on my tanks at home. Feed your Mbuna community foods high in vegetable matter or algae. I don’t recommend much if any meaty foods at all, only foods with a lower protein content to avoid digestive complications. Spirulina and other veggie based foods are also full of natural pigment enhancers to keep these little gems looking their finest. Labidochromis and Melanochromis may be fed some freeze-dried or frozen meaty treats, since they’re insect and larvae pickers in the lake.

A. jacobfreibergiSpecies of Mbuna from Lake Malawi include Labidochromis, Pseudotropheus, Melanochromis, Iodotropheus, Labeotropheus, Tropheops, Cynotilapia and Petrotilapia, with Scienochromis and Aulonocara jacobfreibergei also getting the nod as honorary members. So many beautiful fish to choose from…take your time and choose species that you can enjoy for years to come!

Next time we will talk about the Mbuna from Lake Tanganyika.

Until then,



  1. avatar

    Is there a rule for the amount of rock for a mbuna aquarium? I know in a FOWLER or reef aquarium that it is 1 lb. per gal. Is it the same here?

  2. avatar

    Hello David, There is no set amount that you “need” for a mbuna tank, whether it is Malawian or Tanganyikan. It depends on your personal preference as well as the density of the rock and layout of the tank. Even those “rules” and guidelines for saltwater tank are just that…guidelines. You don’t need to have any to have a successful tank, or you can have much more than 1pound/gallon if it is denser rock or the setup and design of the tank called for more rock and less open area.

  3. avatar

    Can you mix all mbuna species?

  4. avatar

    Hi Charlie, Not necessarily. It depends on the type of mbuna and the size of the tank. You can view our African Cichlid Compatibility Chart for more information.

About Jose Mendes

Read other posts by

That Fish Place’s resident “Cichlid Pro.” In addition to working at TFP for 13 years, Jose’s been breeding Cichlids for over 14 years and has produced over 200 different species. Jose is the man to question for everything cichlid. Check out Jose’s work in the article: Keeping and Breeding African Cichlids in Small Aquariums, and his many other contributions on cichlid husbandry, behavior, and his personal experiences with keeping cichlids from across the globe.