How to Care for Mbuna Cichlid Fry?

If you’re a cichlid passionate and have a thriving community of Mbuna cichlids already set up, you may be eager for them to begin breeding. If you have male and female Mbunas in the same place, that’s bound to happen sooner rather than later.

Mbunas will produce a new batch of fry every 6 weeks or so, which is how much it will take for the eggs to hatch and the female to care for the offspring until they become self-sufficient.

But once the fry have hatched, what should you do to ensure optimal growth and keep them healthy and active? Mbuna cichlids are mouthbrooders which means that females keep the eggs in a mouth pouch until they hatch. They will also keep the fry there and only let them out to feed and investigate their environment.

But when discussing a large and active Mbuna cichlid community, the female’s determination to protect the fry may not suffice. Especially since the Mbuna female will only mother the fry for about 2 weeks. Beyond that point, the fry will have grown enough to no longer fit inside the female’s mouth pouch.

If you want to save the fry and grow them to adult sizes, you need to intervene and take over the role of a female Mbuna. No, that doesn’t mean you should learn how to grow the fry in your mouth.

Rather, you should focus on several aspects designed to provide your cichlid fry with safety and improved quality of life. These include:

Consider the Tank Size

To set things off, you will keep the fry into a separate breeding tank. The purpose of isolating them is to protect them from the adult population that has nothing against eating them. Especially if you have Haps cichlids, which are known to prefer more protein in their diets, and cichlid fry help them meet that quota.

Moving the fry to the breeding tank is the first step, and it revolves around the concept of egg stripping. Since Mbuna cichlids are mouthbrooders, you will need to find a way to remove the eggs from the female’s mouth and move them into the breeding tank. Or, better yet, wait for the eggs to hatch and move the living fry instead.

The process of stripping consists of moving the female into the breeding tank, holding it, and gently prying its mouth open to let the fry swim out. You can then move the female back into the main tank. I can’t stress enough how necessary it is to be gentle about it. The egg stripping process can cause the Mbuna female a lot of stress if not done properly.

Initially, the tank’s size isn’t that important. Just add some rocks or a basic cave system in, provide adequate filtering, and the fry will thrive. With that said, the fry will grow rather fast, at which point you should consider moving them into a larger environment.

I suggest keeping 2 breeding tanks ready with similar environmental conditions, one larger than the other. You should move the fry into their new environment soon after growing up to 1.5 to 2 inches. The tank’s size depends on how many fry you have. Cichlids don’t mind being overcrowded, but that doesn’t mean that they will be comfortable at any population density.

Starting with a 10-gallon tank should be enough for newborn fry, while the upgraded version can go to 20 or 25 gallons, depending on the number of fry.

Filtration is Very Important

Filtration is important for adult Mbuna cichlids as well since Mbunas are known to be extremely sensitive to ammonia and poor water conditions in general. They are even more sensitive to harmful water chemicals as fry, though, at which point the filtration system is of vital importance.

The filtering system will oxygenate the water, cleanse the water of excess floating debris, waste, and food residues, dilute ammonia, and harbor cultures of billions of beneficial bacteria. The later microorganisms will consume ammonia and nitrites and turn them into nitrates which are vastly less harmful for the fish.

The filtering system is that much more important in an environment where you have several dozen fry that will eat twice per day and produce a lot of waste. Even apparently, small increases in ammonia may hurt them.

A good option for a potent filtering system would be the Fluval U Series. This is a great option for small-to-medium tanks, but you can also use it as a secondary filter for large tanks when necessary. It’s compatible with aquariums as large as 65 gallons, so you can use it for a variety of environments.

The Fluval U Series filter comes with carbon cartridge traps that block even the finest particles of floating debris and ensure optimal biological filtration. It is a great addition to your fry tank, keeping the water parameters stable in the long run.

As a vital note, you should always use a sponge-based filter to prevent the fry from getting sucked in. This is crucial for newborn fry, which are more prone to that issue.

You should also upgrade the filter as the fry grow and need more water flow.

Crushed Up Coral Substrate

I’ll start off by stating that not all fish species require the same type of substrate. Some may require sandy substrates, others prefer larger particles or added minerals, while others prefer different colors. When it comes to African cichlids in general and Mbunas in particular, crushed coral seems to be the optimal choice.

This is due to Mbunas’ high pH requirements. Mbuna cichlids require a water pH between 7.8 and 8.5, at which point relying on crushed coral is essential to maintain those high values. Crushed coral contains calcium carbonate, which increases water hardness and boosts pH, and will dissolve slowly into the water, keeping the water parameters in the optimal range for longer.

The only problem I’m seeing with this type of substrate is that it isn’t as fine as sand. It has slightly larger particles which may make food residues sink in easier. As a result, regular vacuuming and maintenance may be necessary to prevent food residues from decaying out of sight and fouling the tank water.

This is important since Mbuna fry are more sensitive to changes in the water chemistry than adult fish.

Good Aquarium Heater

Mbuna cichlids prefer tropical water temperatures, sometimes in the higher end. The maximum water temperature is even higher than that of guppies, reaching up to 85 °F, compared to 82 °F for guppies. When it comes to Mbuna fry, the ideal temperature revolves around 78 – 79 °F.

This is the perfect water temperature to keep your fry active and healthy and boost their growth rate. Mbuna fry are sensitive to both low water temperature and sudden and frequent temperature shifts. Colder waters will deplete their energy levels, causing them to appear lethargic and affecting their immune system.

With time, improper water temperatures will make your Mbuna fry prone to infections and diseases and might even kill them. In this context, having a reliable heating system is a must. You can’t rely on your room temperature to stabilize the tank water temperature.

A tank heater will allow you to adjust the water temperature to your fry’s favorite values and monitor their environment for any temperature fluctuations around the clock.

Aquarium Lighting

Despite being diurnal fish, Mbunas don’t need much lighting. They are typically bottom-dwellers, so they don’t go to the water’s surface that much in the wild. You should replicate the same conditions in captivity and only provide the fry with moderate lighting throughout the day.

They don’t need much to feel comfortable or remain healthy in the long term. In most cases, ambient lighting should suffice. Just make sure there’s no direct sunlight hitting the tank since Mbunas aren’t particularly fond of highly lit environments and that there’s enough lighting for you to cycle between day and night.

Keep Stable Water Parameters

Mbuna cichlids are more sensitive than other cichlids when it comes to water parameters. The Mbuna fry are even more sensitive than the adults. Your fry should remain in stable water conditions with minimal temperature, pH, hardness, and alkalinity fluctuations. This means that adequate tank maintenance is necessary regularly, as well as relying on optimal tank equipment to adjust water parameters.

You should also check your Mbuna fry regularly to make sure they have accommodated to their environment. If you see signs of apathy, lack of appetite, erratic swimming, or other worrying behavior, assess the situation to discover the problem.

Some common issues include:

  • Ammonia poisoning – Lack of energy, laying on the substrate nearly motionless, gasping for air at the water surface, red or bleeding gills.
  • Low oxygen – Less activity and lethargy, rapid mouth and gill movements, gasping for air at the water surface.
  • Coldwater – Lethargy, less swimming, lower appetite.
  • Hot water – Similar symptoms to living in a low-oxygen environment, since the hotter the water is, the lower the oxygen level.

Feed High-Quality Food

Mbuna fry require a diverse and consistent diet to grow fast and healthy. Unlike other fish species, you may be used to, Mbuna fry display some important dietary differences and needs. These include:

  1. Low-protein food – Mbuna cichlids have a primarily herbivorous diet. They will consume protein occasionally, but they need less protein overall compared to other fish or even other cichlids. Even Lake Malawi-resident cichlids vary in their dietary needs based on their native group. The Mbuna group needs low protein content, while Haps and Aulonocara (Peacock cichlids) can handle more in their diet. Mbuna fry need to consume foods low in protein and high in fibers, especially during their first weeks of life. After that, the protein content should remain the same, while fibers can go down a notch.
  2. More frequent feeding – It’s always wiser to feed your Mbuna fry several small meals per day than a larger one. Mbuna fry typically need to eat around 2 times per day, in the morning and in the afternoon. If you have a lot of them in the same environment, food competition is rather fierce, and they display a larger appetite, you can feed them 3 times per day. Just make sure they’re small meals so you don’t overfeed them, which can cause digestive problems. As a plus, try to crush the food even more if the flakes are too big and your fry can’t eat them.
  3. Protein treats – Your Mbuna fry don’t need too much protein, but they do need it. Twice a week should be enough, though. Provide your Mbuna fry with brine shrimp or krill 2 times per week in moderate portions to ensure a balanced and nutritious diet. The same feeding pattern applies to adult Mbunas, who also don’t need that much protein in their diets.

Fibers are essential to your fry’s diet since it allows them to digest the food easier. Mbuna cichlids are notorious for their poor digestive systems, especially during their fry stage.

Water Changes are Important

Water changes are necessary in any cichlid tank, especially the fry. Cichlid fry require a pristine environment with stable water parameters, proper oxygenation, and no ammonia and nitrites. Given that your fry eat twice per day and may produce a lot of poop, regular water changes are a must.

I recommend changing your fry’s water every 2 days if possible and always changing around 25% of the total volume. This sounds like a lot more overwhelming when compared with most fish species, but it’s absolutely necessary. Worst-case scenario, you can perform one water change every 3 days, but no rarer than that.

Do Mbuna Fry Need Air Bubbles?

They don’t. Unlike other fish species like Bettas, Mbuna cichlids cannot breathe atmospheric air, so there’s no point in providing them with air bubbles. If anything, air bubbles may even cause the fry discomfort in the long run.

When Can You Move Your Fry to the Main Tank?

This is an interesting question with a fitting answer. Do not try to replicate what the female Mbuna does with its young. A female Mbuna will hold the eggs in its mouth pouch for around 20-30 days until they hatch.

The female will also hide the newborn fry in the same pouch soon after hatching and keep them there for about 2 weeks. The fry will occasionally go out to eat and explore their habitat but go back in at the first sign of trouble.

The fry will soon be too large to fit their mother’s pouch, which happens around the 2-week mark. In my opinion, the fry are not sufficiently developed at this point to prevent adults from eating them. So, you definitely shouldn’t introduce the fry to the main tank 2 weeks after hatching.

The timeframe isn’t that relevant either, since Mbuna fry can grow at various rates, depending on their genetics, nutrition, environmental parameters, and other factors. Instead, use their size to assess when they’re ready for integration in the main tank. Your fry should be at least 1.5 to 2 inches in size before introducing them to the main tank. I would go for 2 inches just to be sure.

At this point, they will be large enough to no longer serve as food for the adult cichlids. However, that doesn’t mean that accidents won’t happen, so be prepared for that. It also matters what species of cichlids you own. Some Mbunas may be more aggressive than others, in which case you can keep the fry separate for longer to allow them to grow even bigger.

Be extra careful if you have Mbuna cichlid species like Auratus, Kennyi, Demasoni, or Golden Mbunas. These are notorious for their territorial and overall aggressive behavior.

Can Mbuna Fry Survive in the Main Tank?

Yes, but it depends when you add them to the main tank. Allowing the female to produce the fry in the main tank will diminish their survival rates dramatically. Keeping the fry in a separate tank but moving them into the general population too soon will have a similar outcome.

The right answer depends on factors like:

  • The fry’s size
  • The cichlid species present in the main tank and their level of aggression
  • How many cichlids you have (having only a few cichlids will increase their aggression level since cichlids like to live in larger groups)
  • The tank’s layout and the available hiding spots, etc.

There’s no ideal answer since it all depends on the situation. If you want to save your Mbuna fry and keep as many alive as you can, always assess and adapt to your unique situation.


Mbuna Fry need more intensive care and maintenance compared to other fish species. They require stable water parameters, regular tank maintenance, water changes every other day, and an optimized, low-protein diet.

Inform yourself on Mbuna cichlids and learn as much as you can about your favorite species before breeding them. This will help you provide your Mbunas with long, healthy, and happy lives over the years.

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...

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *