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Setting Up a Tanganyikan Mbuna (Rock Dweller) Cichlid Aquarium

N. brichardiThis time we will talk about setting up an aquarium for Tanganyikan Mbuna, or rock dwelling cichlids. The smallest tank I’ve ever attempted for these fish was a 20 high that housed a trio of brichardis I was breeding. Let’s say for the sake of keeping a community you should start with at least a 30 gallon tank.  A 30 gallon has a footprint of 36 inches by 12 inches, so it doesn’t take up too much space, but still gives the fish some room to play.

I keep my rift lake aquariums pretty much the same, whether its Malawi, Tanganyika or Victoria. With this particular type of set-up you may need to do some minor tweaks to the pH, and live plants might have a better chance than in other cichlid set-ups. Let’s start from the bottom up.

Choose and place your equipment. As I’ve said before, I prefer to turn my water over 8 to 10 times an hour, keeping the tank cleaner and the fish healthier. A good power filter or canister filter will handle a tank this size just fine, just choose a brand and style that appeals to you the most. I N. brichardialways use a heater that will supply about 5 watts per gallon, so for a 30 gallon, a 150 watt, fully submersible heater will work perfectly. Use a seperate external thermometer to monitor the temp, and keep it set at around 76F. For my Tanganyikans, I keep the pH in the high 8’s to low 9’s and the water hard. The rock and substrate help to keep the hardness and pH consistant, but you may need to use buffers if you have softer water. Choose subdued, not-too-bright lighting, so the already muted colors of the fish don’t become more washed out.

My substrate choice is always the same…fine, neutral aragamax sand mixed with some fine black sand. This helps to enhance some of the subdued colors of the fish, cause lets face it, Tanganyikan rock dwellers are not as colorful as their Malawi or Victorian cousins. Next, I build up the sides and corners with rock, leaving 10 to 12 inches open along the middle of the back and bringing the opening forward into the front of the tank. I place some plants next. I like a curtain of val through the back of the opening, and some anubias and java ferns tied to some rocks or driftwood on the sand bed. Once again live plants have to be placed with caution, as some cichlids may want to eat them, and others may just want to destroy them for being in their territory.  Vals, Java Fern, and Anubias are all good candidates since they’ll handle the water chemistry.

N. brichardiThe final piece of the puzzle is choosing a supply of food which will depend on the fish you want to keep. I would house a pair of Neolamprologus brichardi in this tank, and a pair of Julidochromis regani or J. dickfeldi. Their diet would consist of marine flakes and pellets with supplemental feedings of frozen or freeze-dried mysis and plankton.  These foods would be great for many other Tankganyikan fish as well.

Keep in mind that if you are partial to Tropheus species, their aggressive nature will make them need a larger tank. They are also algae grazers, so their diet has to be heavy on the greens, with little or no meaty foods at all.  They may develop digestive disorders if they are fed too much protein. Please let me know if you need advice on set-ups for particular types of fish, I’ll be happy to give you some advice and suggestions.

Well, until next time,



  1. avatar

    Hallo Jose

    Thank you soooo very much for making the Tanganyica world so very interesting!!!
    Keep up your exceptional good work!

    Just another aquarium freak (especially Tanganyica)

  2. avatar

    Any chance we could get pix of the rock layout in the tank?

  3. avatar

    Unfortunately, Jose was referencing a tank he had set up years ago in a layout that worked successfully for him. The tank is no longer set up as described, but if you need more details we’ll be happy to help, just let us know.

  4. avatar

    Hi Jose,

    am an amateur wish to setup tanganikan. What kind of rocks & substrate is best suited for Tanganikan?
    Fishes i prefer is (Tropheus, leelupi, brichardi, calvus, juliedochromis) am not sure about their food & behaviour. Please advice.


  5. avatar

    Hi Mijil, Rocks like Tufa or Lace are the kinds I like to use for those tanks with a medium- to small-grade crushed coral substrate. Keep in mind that although Leleupi, Brichardi, Calvus and Juli’s would all eat the same food but Tropheus have a very specific diet and wouldn’t be good to keep with those others. I’d also worry about the Tropheus being aggressive towards the other fish. How big is the aquarium going to be? That would be helpful for us to give recommendations. I would call and talk to someone in our Fish Room so we can discuss your tank more specifically; you can reach our Fish Room at 717-299-5691. -Jose

  6. avatar

    How much lace rock would you recommend for a 55 gal. mbuna tank?

  7. avatar

    Hi David, That is a difficult question to answer. It depends on the shape and density of the rocks themselves and how they are stacked and piled up. Mostly though, it comes down to your personal preference on how you want your tank and how much rock you want in there. You can start out figuring around 50-60 pounds but you may need to add more or leave some out, depending on how you decide to use it. There is no set amount that you “need” for a mbuna tank.

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About Jose Mendes

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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.