5 Best Mbuna Cichlids for Beginners

Mbuna cichlids represent a group of cichlids only found in Lake Malawi on the African continent. These are primarily rock-dwelling fish, coming in an astounding variety of colors and with rather unique personalities. Mbuna cichlids have caught on in the aquarium world, increasing in popularity dramatically over the past several years.

Both experienced, and novice aquarists have tried their luck at growing and breeding African cichlids, which, as we will see, are no easy tasks. Mbuna cichlids belong to a larger group of Malawi-born cichlids, encompassing more than a thousand species. The Mbuna are only spread across 13 genera.

They are 2 primary things that make Mbuna so popular among aquarists. The first is the color diversity, as Mbunas display a dumbfounding diversity of colors and patterns, most including stripes and spots. This allows for greater freedom when breeding the fish selectively to boost certain characteristics and features.

The second one is their widespread compatibility. Mbunas don’t mind sharing space with other Mbuna species, which is unique in the cichlid world. Generally speaking, cichlids only accept members of their own species and will rarely get along with members of other species. With Mbunas, you no longer have that problem.

Sufficiently large tanks can even hold 50 different species of Mbunas in the same habitat, provided the tank’s size and setup allow it. But are these cichlids fit for beginners, and which should you consider? Let’s see!

Are Mbunas Good for Beginners?

Yes, Mbunas can work for novice aquarists, but there are several aspects to keep in mind here. First, cichlids, in general, are not considered beginner-friendly fish, including the Mbunas. The difference is that the latter are more manageable under the right circumstances. It only takes some knowledge, preparation, and discipline, and you can craft a stable and healthy environment where your cichlids can thrive.

When it comes to Mbunas, it’s important to know what you’re dealing with. Here are a few vital pointers:

  • These are rock dwellers – It’s easy to remember this point if you keep in mind that the word Mbuna literally means ‘rockfish’ in Tonga, the language of Malawi people. This means that these cichlids require a rocky substrate which should form most of their habitat’s layout. These cichlids prefer to swim near the rocks and set up their territory horizontally, so don’t invest in tall tanks. The rocky setup keeps cichlids safe and mitigates their aggression, allowing bully victims to find refuge in the décor.
  • Cichlid overstocking is often necessary – Despite many Mbuna species being calmer and less aggressive overall, they are still cichlids at the end of the day. And cichlids are territorial like few other fish species are. Cichlid males, especially, showcase a predilection towards territoriality, causing them to get into frequent fights over space. They will also fight over females, food, hierarchy, and anything they deem worthy, including for fun. Overstocking the cichlids will decrease their aggression and keep them calmer and more peaceful. The problem is that overstocking creates additional problems, which we will tackle at the next point.
  • Strict tank maintenance and cleaning – Cichlids are extremely messy fish, so expect to deal with a lot of poop in the long run. The problem tends to grow fast in larger cichlid tanks with overstocked fish. Cichlids are particularly sensitive to poor water conditions and fluctuating parameters, as these can cause health issues fast. Your goal should be to keep the cichlids’ temperature stable, keep ammonia and nitrites to 0, and change the water once or twice weekly, 15% max each time. You should also monitor water parameters 24/7 to make sure everything remains in the safe zone.
  • Mind the diet and feeding schedule – You should never overfeed cichlids. Unlike other fish species, Mbuna cichlids have notoriously bad digestive systems. Overfeeding them will lead to health issues, including compaction, which can turn deadly. Not to mention, overfeeding also degrades water quality due to the uneaten food particles decaying in the water. Diet-wise, Mbuna cichlids are typically herbivorous in the wild, feeding primarily on aufwuchs, a growth comprising on algae, small crustaceans, and other tiny organisms. In captivity, they require a diverse diet with smaller amounts of animal protein, focused more on plant-based nutrients.

These specifications stand true for most African cichlids with notable exceptions along the way. I wouldn’t recommend cichlids to novice aquarists due to their intricate maintenance routine and volatile personalities, but Mbuna cichlids are an exception.

5 Best Mbuna Cichlids for Beginners

Despite their maintenance needs and rather unique care profile, some Mbuna cichlids are more forgiving than others. Today, we will discuss the 5 that you can manage even as a rookie.

– Electric Yellow Cichlid

This yellow cichlid comes by several names, including Yellow Lab, Lemon Drop, and Yellow Prince, among others. The name is pretty self-explanatory when it comes to the cichlid’s appearance. Its body is completely bright yellow, with only a thick black or dark blue stripe going across its dorsal fin. The ventral and anal fins may also be black.

This cichlid will grow up to 4 inches, and it’s friendlier than other cichlid species. It ranks as semi-aggressive, which is pretty much the lowest that cichlids can go. The important aspect here is that the Yellow Lab is relatively easy to care for.

It requires temperatures between 72 to 82 °F, preferably closer to 80 °F, especially during the reproductive phase. Unlike most species of Mbuna, the Yellow Lab is a mouthbrooder. Most Mbuna species are mouthbrooders, meaning that the female will carry the eggs in its mouth pouch until they hatch.

As with any other Mbuna cichlids, this species also prefers to live in large groups as much as possible. The minimum tank size should revolve around 30 gallons, but I would recommend a 55-gallon one, especially if you’re planning on building a stable and healthy cichlid population. Or if you’ve decided to breed your cichlids and could use the extra room for the upcoming fry.

Interesting facts:

  • Yellow Labs are carnivorous in the wild but omnivorous in captivity. They require a balanced and diverse diet, mixing plants with animal-sourced protein.
  • The male displays an egg-spot pattern near its anal fin, which he will flare in the female’s face after she lays the eggs. The female will mistake those spots for its own eggs and attempt to take them with her mouth, stimulating the male to release its sperm in the process.
  • The female won’t eat anything for 25 to 40 days until the eggs will hatch in the mouth pouch


– Yellow-Tail Acei

The Yellow-Tail Acei is a gorgeous cichlid, one of the most beautiful you can find. Its slender, bright blue body, flanked by the yellow fins and tail, is nothing short of eye-candy. It will make for quite the addition to your tank, especially in a well-designed aquatic environment with plenty of rocks and moderate lighting.

The Acei cichlid can grow up to 6 inches, which makes it quite the giant compared to the regular tank fish you may be used to. As is natural, this means that Acei cichlids require a lot more space than other cichlids, especially when considering that this species displays strong social behavior. The ideal tank size for a stable and thriving Acei community would be around 70 gallons.

The good news is that the Acei is less aggressive than other African cichlids and not as territorial. They will stick to only occasional fighting over food, females, and territory, as well as some bullying here and there. Nothing to worry about provided the fighting doesn’t degenerate into full-on violence.

Interesting facts:

  • Acei cichlids are more herbivorous in nature. Providing them with protein-rich foods will affect their digestive system, so only limit animal protein to weekly treats whenever you deem necessary
  • In the wild, Acei cichlids can form groups of up to 50 individuals or more, especially in open spaces. When living near rocky areas, they will stick to smaller groups of up to 10 individuals
  • This species will live up to 10 years in captivity inadequate conditions


– Lavender Mbuna

The Lavender Mbuna is also known as the Rusty cichlid thanks to its color changes as the cichlid undergoes different developmental phases. Younger males and females display a rusty brown, while mature males will showcase the trademark lavender color with yellow fins. All in all, the Lavender Mbuna makes for an astounding addition to your cichlid tank.

These are friendlier cichlids, compared to the rest, although ‘friendlier’ isn’t probably the most inspired word choice. They aren’t as aggressive, to put it like that, to the point where they might even be bullied by more aggressive species. This means that the Lavender Mbuna requires a lot of hiding spots to keep it safe and comfortable in the presence of slightly more aggressive species.

This species is also mouthbrooding, with the female keeping the eggs in its mouth until hatching. The female cichlid will also use its mouth pouch to shelter the newborn fry for the first couple of weeks.

Interesting facts:

  • The female Lavender can lay up to 60 eggs during the breeding phase. She will lay them in batches and get them into her mouth immediately.
  • The Lavender’s environment should include flat rocks, which the cichlids will use as spawning site
  • The cichlid’s Latin name (Iodotropheus sprengerae) comes from Kappy Sprenger – the famous aquarist and author and the first who categorized this species correctly.


– Perlmutt Cichlid

If you’re into more hard rock-dwelling cichlids, the Perlmutt cichlid is right up your alley. This species’ taxonomic origins are still fuzzy, which is another way of saying it doesn’t have a clear taxonomic category. The fish comes in light uniform colors, like blue and purple, and the males will exacerbate their color intensity during the mating phase.

When it comes to water parameters, the Perlmutt cichlid doesn’t ask for much. The ideal temperature should remain between 75 and 79 °F, preferably towards the higher end during the breeding season. Other than that, caring for the Perlmutt is rather straightforward.

This cichlid is omnivorous and will consume a variety of fish foods, provided they are nutritious and fitting for them.

Interesting facts:

  • The Perlmutt cichlid requires more meaty foods than other cichlids. They may need more protein in their meals, but be careful not to overfeed them, since the excess of protein can cause digestive issues
  • Expect the female to produce around 10 to 15 viable offspring, although it will most likely lay more eggs than that
  • Only pair the Perlmutt cichlid with other Malawi cichlids since other species may destabilize the community, triggering violence and extreme territorial behavior


– Afra Cobue Cichlid

You may know this cichlid by one of its most common names – the dogtooth cichlid. That’s because this species showcases a unicuspid tooth similar to that of dogs.

The Afra Cobue cichlid comes in several color variations, depending on the species, including shades of blue, yellow, silver, and brown, usually in striped pattern. This is a more aggressive species than you’d like, but it’s manageable. The ideal aquarium setting should include a rich rock system since this species loves dashing through caves and crevices and exploring its environment.

Afra Cobue might not be the ideal pick for novice aquarists, but it makes for a unique cichlid specimen that will complement any cichlid tank. So long as you don’t force the Dogtooth in a community setup. I suggest sticking to a species-only tank since this cichlid isn’t exactly ecstatic about meeting other fish species.

Interesting facts:

  • The males will set up their territories near caves and rock entrances that serve as hiding spots for them and their pregnant females
  • You can keep the Dogtooth cichlids in a planted aquarium, so long as you rely on tougher plants with strong roots
  • This cichlid prefers harems, where one male has at least 3 females at its disposal. This can often lead males to engage in domination fights, with the winner gaining access to more females and a larger territory


While Mbuna cichlids are more fitting for experienced aquarists, newbie aquarists have their options too. The 5 I have presented are some of the most popular options, but you can find other Mbuna cichlids that are generally easier to care for and maintain.

Whatever the case may be, remember the most essential aspects about these cichlids:

  • They need a rock-oriented environment with plenty of rocks and crevices for hiding
  • Cichlids can be very territorial and aggressive in general, no matter the species they belong to
  • Males can often engage in fights to the death over food, hierarchy, territory, and females
  • Most cichlids prefer omnivorous diets in captivity, preferably low in protein and high in fibers
  • Stable water parameter and a clean tank are necessary to keep your cichlids comfortable and healthy
  • All Mbuna cichlids are mouthbrooders, with the female abstaining from eating until the eggs hatch, which can last up to 40 days

Other than that, keep your cichlids in larger numbers and monitor their water parameters around the clock, and they will be fine.

avatar Noah
I’m Noah, chief editor at VIVO Pets and the proud owner of a playful, energetic husky (Max). I’ve been a volunteer at Rex Animal Rescue for over 2 years. I love learning and writing about different animals that can be kept as pets. read more...

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