Africa – Lake Malawi

Africa – Lake Malawi

Did You Know?

  • Lake Malawi (Lake Nyasa) is one of the great Rift Valley Lakes of Africa. It is located in the southern section of the East African Rift Valley.
  • Lake Malawi is the ninth largest and fourth deepest lake in the world and is the second deepest Rift Lake. Lake Malawi has only one deep basin, which is in the northern end of the lake.
  • The third largest lake in Africa, it was formed between one and two million years ago. This is a relatively young lake in geological terms (Lake Tanganyika is around 10 million years old).
  • Lake Malawi is the ninth largest lake in the world and is:
    • nearly 31 000 square kilometres in area.
    • over 600 kilometres long
    • 85 kilometres wide
    • 700 metres (maximum depth)
    • 472 metres above sea level
  • Few rivers drain the lake and most of the water loss is through evaporation.
  • The water is extremely clear (visibility to 20 metres) – the lake has one of the clearest freshwater areas in the world.
  • The lake is bordered by three countries – Malawi, Mozambique and Tanzania. The majority of the lake is on Malawi’s borders and is known as Lake Malawi. In Mozambique and Tanzania, however, the lake is referred to as Lake Nyasa.
  • Lake Malawi is very important to the natives living around the lake. More than 10 000 tonnes of fish are caught every year. These are mostly Haplochromine cichlids (Utaka), Tilapia (Cambo) and the lake sardine (Usipa).
  • Livingstone called Lake Malawi «Lake Nyasa» – which literally means «Lake Lake» by mistake. He asked the local people what it was called and they said «Nyasa»!
  • The lake is like an inland sea. During stormy weather, three to four metre high waves are not unusual.
  • Lake Malawi is unusual in that it doesn’t have tides or currents. The shores of the lake are not uniform. There are three broad habitats in the lake.
    • Habitat 1: Sandy zone. This habitat occupies 70% of the coastline. There are some plants but no major plant habitats. This is mostly where the Haplochromine cichlids are found.
    • Habitat 2: Rocky coast. The rocky areas cover about one third of the coast but contains the majority of fish species in the lake – Mbuna. This area has no plant life. The rocky areas are common when deep water is nearby. Many cichlids have adapted so well to the rocky environment that they are bound to this area throughout their lives. These areas are not continuous around the lake and populations of cichlids that are found at one location will not interfere with populations on other coasts if the rocky areas are far enough apart.
    • Habitat 3 : Muddy river estuaries and vegetated shores. Many non-mbuna and riverine cichlids, as well as other fish, inhabit this area. Well-vegetated, shallow areas. These areas act as a natural border between different cichlids species as Mbuna very rarely cross open areas without rocks.
    • Another area of the lake is the Deep water zone (pelagic) – between 30 and 250 metres deep. Below 250 metres the water contains hydrogen sulphide (rotten egg gas) which is toxic to fish. Large predatory cichlids inhabit this area.
Africa – Lake Malawi
Africa – Lake Malawi

The Fish

  • The dominant fauna of the lake are cichlids. There are estimates of over 500 cichlid species endemic to the lake. Catfish and other non-cichlid species also inhabit the lake.
  • DNA studies of 16 species, representing the major Malawian cichlid groups, suggest that all the Malawian cichlids arose from one single species within the past 700,000 years.
  • The cichlids of Lake Malawi are usually divided into four groups, Mbuna, which live exclusively in the rocky zones of the lake; Peacocks, which are fish of the genus Aulonocara; Haps after the genus Haplochromis into which many of these species were previously placed and Utaka, which is exclusively fish of the genus Copadichromis.


Mbuna (um-boo-nuh)is the name of of a group of small rock dwelling cichlids from Lake Malawi. The name Mbuna comes from the language spoken in northern Malawi – chiTumbuku – and means rock fish.

Mbuna are found in depths up to 40 metres along the rocky shores and on the reefs within the lake. They are usually seen in large groups over the rocks, but they are not schooling fish. In some rocky habitats of the lake, 20 fish per square metre is not uncommon.

Many Mbuna found around the lake have many different colour variants and almost every isolated reef or isolated rocky coastline has its own endemic species or colour variant. In the aquarium you should not mix fish of the same species from different locations in the lake as this will lead to crossings and a loss of the uniqueness of those variants. There are currently nine genera classified as Mbuna containing more than 100 species.

Mbuna (um-boo-nuh)is the name of of a group of small rock dwelling cichlids

Mbuna are thought to have evolved from riverine Haplochromis and Tilapia species. Because Mbuna are reluctant to leave the rocky habitats and cross the open, sandy regions of the lake, different geographical populations tend to develop in isolation from one another. This has meant that many different forms have resulted from a single species (allopatric speciation).

Mbuna are hardy and aggressive fish that are quite beautiful when kept in numbers. Their aggressiveness does not make them good community fish with many fish from outside Lake Malawi.

Physical description…

Mbuna are characterised by their bright colours and stocky bodies. They are highly specialised for feeding on Aufwuchs (owf-witches), the crustaceans and algae that live on the rocks.

They have flatter faces than other Malawi cichlids and their mouths have chisel-shaped teeth – both features allow them to scrape the aufwuchs from the rocks.

Both males and females display bright colours. They display bright solid colours or colorful, bright patterns of horizontal stripes or vertical bars.

Some genera have orange-blotch patterning. Generally, Mbuna will grow to around 10-13cm in size, and rarely exceed 15cm. Males tend to grow slightly larger than females and will display slightly brighter colour.

Mbuna will live between 7 to 10 years.

Tank conditions…

Mbuna, as a general rule, should not be kept in tanks smaller than 90cm or 114 litres. The largest tank possible is recommended, as most Mbuna prefer open swimming areas.

A coral rubble or marble chip substrate should be used as this helps to keep the water alkaline. Mbuna can easily be combined with each other in a 120cm or 200 litre tank. Lots of rock work should be used to provide hiding places and feeding areas.

Algal growth can be encouraged as Mbuna will eat it. Mbuna thrive in clean water, so water changes should be regular. Ammonia also needs to be monitored, as Mbuna don’t tolerate high ammonia levels.

If Mbuna look listless or slow, it generally indicates that it is time to do a water change – they will become more active and colourful after a water change. They can usually take large water changes which sometimes will trigger spawning.

Mbuna don’t need plants – in fact they may eat many plants – and not many plants will live in the hard, alkaline water. However, there are a few species of plants that they don’t seem to eat and that are well adapted to alkaline water. These include Java Fern (Microsorium pteropus), Vallisneria sp., and the Anubias family (eg. Anubias barteri, Anubias lanceolata, Anubias nana).

The benefits of Java Fern and Anubias are that they have tough leaves that discourage nibbling and they can be attached to rockwork to prevent them being dug up.

General water parameters:

  • pH: 7.5-9.0
  • Hardness: 10-20 dH
  • Temperature: 24-27oC.


Mbuna are best kept in large numbers with a ratio of one male to several females. If Mbuna are kept in smaller numbers, aggression between fish will often arise.

Tank mates should be chosen that do not resemble another male Mbuna in breeding colour, as males will be more aggresisve towards look-alikes. Where males and females are kept, there should be more females than males to avoid constant harassment of the females. They also shouldn’t be kept with fish where there is a chance of cross-breeding.

Cichlids from other biotopes, such as sand and open-water swimmers, can be combined with Mbuna in a large tank of 120cm or more. In all cases, only similarly sized or larger fish should be kept with them – providing the Mbuna aren’t going to be regarded as food by the larger fish. Synodontis catfish are also a good choice. Dither fish such as Rainbowfish can divert aggression.


In the wild Mbuna feed on the algae that covers the rocks in their habitat. In the aquarium, their diet should contain a high proportion of algae and vegetable matter.

Commercially prepared Spirulina flakes or pellets, or frozen greens are suitable. They can also be fed small amounts of brine shrimp and Mysis shrimp. They should never be fed mammalian protein such as beefheart.

In an aquarium, they are greedy, non-fussy eaters. Careful attention should be paid to their diet if these fish are going to be kept healthy. The intestinal tracts of Mbuna are made for vegetable matter. They have long intestines designed to extract the proteins and carbohydrates from the hard-to-digest algae.

If they are fed too much meat (bloodworms, shrimp), they may develop an intestinal blockage, resulting in Malawi Bloat. Commercial foods can be supplemented with fresh greens such as blanched lettuce, zucchini and shelled peas.


Mbuna are polygamous maternal mouthbrooders. One male must be kept with several females. Rock work should be used to provide retreats for females, as the male often will be aggressive towards the female, especially if she is unreceptive.

Many species spawn readily in water with a pH between 7.8 and 8.3 and a water hardness between 10 and 16 dH. The temperature should be 25-28oC. Generally between 10 and 60 are laid. They are fertilised using the dummy-egg method. The female mouthbroods the eggs until they hatch after about 21 days. She will then continue to care for the fry for another 1 to 2 weeks. Start feeding the fry with powdered foods and newly hatched Artemia. Remember that the spawners become highly aggressive while caring for the brood.

Males of most Mbuna (with the exception of Melanochromis, Iodotropheus and Gephyrochromis) are permanently territorial. Some female Mbuna defend a feeding territory.

Mbuna species

About the Fact Sheet Information

Astatotilapia calliptera
Cynotilapia afra
Cynotilapia afra Gold Crown
Cynotilapia afra Jalo Reef
Cynotilapia sp
Lion Lion’s Cove
Gephyrochromis acei
(Yellow Tail Msuli Point, Tanzania & White Tail)
Iodotropheus sprengerae (Rusty)
Labeotropheus fuellborni
Labeotropheus trewavassae
Labidochromis caeruleus
(Electric Yellow)
Labidochromis gigas
Labidochromis hongi
Labidochromis «perlmutt»
Melanochromis auratus
Melanochromis baliodigma
Melanochromis cyaneorhabdos
Melanochromis dialeptos (Dwarf Auratus)
Melanochromis interruptus
Melanochromis johanni
Melanochromis lepidiadaptes
Metriaclima callainos
Metriaclima demasoni
Metriaclima estherae
Metriaclima greshakei
Metriaclima hajomaylandi
Metriaclima lombardoi
Metriaclima msobo
Metriaclima zebra
Pseudotropheus crabro
(Hornet Cichlid)
Pseudotropheus daktari
Pseudotropheus elongatus
Chewere and Mpanga
Pseudotropheus flavus
Pseudotropheus kingsizei
Pseudotropheus macrophthalmus
Pseudotropheus perspicax Orange Cap
Pseudotropheus polit
Pseudotropheus saulosi Pseudotropheus socolofi


This large group of Malawi cichlids contains species that can be kept with just about any other Malawi cichlid. Overall, this is the second largest group of cichlids (Mbuna are the largest group).

Haplochromines or Haps are basically non-Mbuna cichlids

Physical description…

Haplochromines or Haps are basically non-Mbuna cichlids that once belonged to the broad genus Haplochromis. They were investigated taxonomically in 1989 by Eccles and Trewavas, who then developed new genera to split Haplochromis into. There are now a total of 38 genera that belong to this group of cichlids.

The Haps are generally not strongly rock-orientated and live in almost every habitat available in Lake Malawi, including the wide sandy zones and the poorly lit depths.

Haps can be divided into two broad groups:

  • Piscivores: Many Haps are piscivores, which means they prey on small fish, particularly other small cichlids. They live away from the rocks, preferring the open sandy areas and they cruise the open water alone. They are seldom seen in groups.
  • Among the piscivores there are two distinct hunting types: Haps with long slender, almost torpedo-shaped bodies, which allow them to have a sudden burst of speed and ambush predators that are more like a «normal» fish shape.
    • Ambush predators – Nimbochromis livingstoni will lure small fish within range by lying on its side on the bototm and pretending to be dead. Its mottled colouration also helps it look like a fish carcass.
    • Speed predators – Buccochromis rhoadesii and Tyrannochromis macrostoma use their streamlined bodies to produce bursts of speed to quickly swim down prey.
    • Most of these fish are silver or brownish grey when juveniles. When mature they show marked sexual dimorphism, with the males becoming very brightly coloured. Females typically remain in juvenile colouration. These tend to be large fish.
  • Omnivores or Foragers: These Haps are commonly found foraging in small groups or large schools. They will sift through the substrate searching for food.
    • Many of these fish are also micro-predators. Some are opportunistic. For instance the Blue Dolphin (Cyrtocara moorii) will follow Fossorochromis rostratus as it searches for food, sifting through the sand stirred up by the larger fish.
    • Some fish belonging to this group are coloured as juveniles, with the colour intensifying as they mature. In these fish there is often very little sexual dimorphism, with males and females having the same colour. Males may grow larger and older males may develop a pronounced head hump. These Haps tend to be medium-sized, although some can grow quite large.

Tank conditions…

The minimum length of the aquarium should be 120cm for species with a maximum size of 20cm.

All other species need a tank longer than 150cm. A tank of around 600 litre capacity and with a good filtration system can house around 10 to 15 of these fish. Large Haps (some of these can grow to around 30cm) should not be kept in anything less than a 800 litre aquarium.

General water parameters:

  • pH: 7.8-8.6
  • Hardness: 10-20 dH
  • Temperature: 23-28oC.

However, overheating can be just as dangerous as temperatures that are too low. Temperatures to about 32oC can be sufficient to kill these fish, as the available oxygen in the water is greatly reduced.

Haps live in generally more open areas than mbunas and like having plenty of swimming room, but most still appreciate some rocky retreats. A number of species forage in the gravel for food, so a fine grade gravel is usually best.


Most Haps are only moderately aggressive, although some can be predatory. Because they are fairly placid by cichlid standards they can be mixed with other cichlids of similar temperament and size, or with robust schooling fish.

Although most Haps will not eat plants, their size, active swimming, and the tendency of some species to dig, plants may take a beating. Robust plants that can tolerate the alkaline conditions can be successfully used. These include Anubias and Java Fern.

As these plants also do well attached to rockwork, they won’t be disturbed by the digging activities of some of these fish.


In the wild, many Haps feed on invertebrates and other food dug from the substrate. As mentioned before, some are predators, while others are plankton eaters.

Commercially prepared good quality tropical flake, or a specialist cichlid flake, such as HBH African Cichlid Attack, is suitable. TetraBits are also a good choice for Haps. They can also be fed frozen or live brine shrimp and Mysis shrimp.

They should never be fed mammalian protein such as beefheart. For the predators, a larger carnivore pellet is also suitable.

In an aquarium, they are all greedy, non-fussy eaters.


Haps are polygamous mouthbrooders, meaning that dominant males maintain harems of females. Males take no part in care for the eggs or fry. After spawning with one female, the male moves on to find another receptive female. The male will patrol a territory containing several females.

Females will incubate fertilised eggs in their mouths until the fry are completely developed, at which time they spit the fry into the rocks where they fend for themselves. However, in times of danger, they fry will swim back into her mouth. Haps have much larger broods than other mouthbrooders. Dimidiochromis compressiceps, for example, has broods numbering 250.

«Hap» species

Aristochromis christyi
Buccochromis rhoadesii
Champsochromis caeruleus

Champsochromis spilorhynchus
Chilotilapia euchilus
Chilotilapia rhoadesii
Copadichromis azureus
Copadichromis kadango

Copadichromis mbenji Blue
Copadichromis quadrimaculatus
Copadichromis trewavasae Makonde
Copadichromis virginalis
Cyrtocara moorii
(Blue Dolphin)
Dimidiochromis compressiceps (Malawi Eye-biter)
Eclectochromis milomo Super VC-10
Eclectochromis sp Mbenji Thick Lip
Exochochromis anagenys

Fossorochromis rostratus (Rostratus)
Hemitilapia oxyrhynchus

Lethrinops oculatus
Lichnochromis acuticeps
Mylochromis ensatus
Silver Torpedo
Mylochromis lateristriga

Nimbochromis fuscotaeniatus
Nimbochromis linni

Nimbochromis livingstoni
Nimbochromis polystigma
Nimbochromis venustus
Otopharynx aureomarginatus
Otopharynx lithobates
Otopharynx tetraspilus
Yellow Fin Mloto
Placidochromis electra
Placidochromis mbamba
Placidochromis phenocheilus
Protomelas annectens
Protomelas sp
Fire Blue
Protomelas sp Taiwan Reef
Protomelas steveni Tiger
Protomelas taeniolatus
Red Empress
Protomelas spilonotus
Rhampsochromis macrophthalmus
Sciaenochromis fryeri
(Electric Blue)
Tyrannochromis macrostoma


Peacocks are a fairly recent, but popular, introduction to the fishkeeping. Around 10 species have been described although several others likely exist. Within these species, are many geographical variants, as well as man-bred varieties. Peacocks are all members of the genus Aulonocara.


Physical description…

Peacocks usually range in size from 10-15 centimetres.

Tank conditions…

A tank of 100 centimetres (40 inches) or about 200 litres is usually a good size for Peacocks. The tank should have a rocky set-up with numerous caves. Plants such as Anubias, Vallisneria and Java Fern can be used.

Use a marble chip/sand substrate to keep the water alkaline. The filter should have good water turn-over, but create little current.

Regular, partial water changes are essential.

General water parameters:

  • pH: 7.5-9.0;
  • hardness: 10-20 dH;
  • temperature: 24-27oC.


Unlike most other Lake Malawi Cichlids, Peacocks are relatively peaceful fish. They will set-up territories and defend them, but otherwise are not aggressive.

Peacocks can be combined with each other, catfish, and other peaceful, mid-sized fish in a community tank.


Peacocks are omnivorous and can easily be fed on flake, pellets, live or frozen foods including brine shrimp, Mysis Shrimp, HBH Cichlid Flake Frenzy, TetraBits and other good quality foods.


Peacocks are ovophile mouthbrooders that form a matriarchal family. The pair should be conditioned separately on mosquito larvae, bloodworms, and crustaceans.

The female spawns a small number of eggs on the rocky bottom. As with all Lake Malawi mouthbrooders, the eggs are fertilised using the dummy-egg method. The young should be raised on newly hatched brine shrimp and commercial fry food or finely-crushed flake foods.

Breeding difficulty depends on the species.

Peacock species

Aulonocara baenschi (Benga Peacock)
Aulonocara brevinidus
Aulonocara jacobfreibergi Eureka Red
Aulonocara jacobfreibergi Otter Point
Aulonocara lwanda
Aulonocara sp
Maluna Bicolor
Aulonocara maylandi
Aulonocara stuartgranti Cobue
Aulonocara stuartgranti Fort McGuire
Aulonocara stuartgranti Kande Island (Usisya)
Aulonocara stuartgranti Marleri (Sunshine Peacock)
Aulonocara stuartgranti
Ngara Flametail

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