Is My Mbuna Cichlid Holding Eggs?

Mbuna cichlids have grown in popularity dramatically over the past several years due to their unique behavior and exotic origins. You can only find Mbuna cichlids in Lake Malawi, where it is estimated that over 1,000 species have evolved over time. The official suggestion is that there may be more than that and that new species are formed on a consistent basis.

While we do know a lot about Mbuna cichlids, many other things are still to be discovered. Interestingly, a novice cichlid lover won’t necessarily know how to care for an Mbuna cichlid since the latter is different from other cichlid species.

Their character, personality, feeding habit and social structure all differ from that of American or European cichlids. Another different behavior that makes Mbuna cichlids so interesting is their reproductive cycle, which we will discuss here today.

Why do Mbunas Hold Their Eggs?

Mbuna cichlids are different from many other fish species in the sense that they manifest powerful maternal instincts. This is atypical among most tank fish species.

Guppies, for instance, will eat their young immediately after they are born, which is why using a breeding tank to house the growing fry is preferable to having them hatch in the main tank. If you care about keeping them, of course.

One of the main problems is that female guppies have no consideration for their young. They will protect them, and they might even eat them if given the opportunity. The situation is different with the Mbuna.

The female Mbuna will care for the eggs and then protect the fry for several weeks until they are strong enough to care for themselves. But let’s start by looking at the Mbunas’ reproductive process for a clearer picture on the matter:

  • The male attracts the female into a cave or a hidden spot near the substrate to mate
  • If convinced, the female will enter the area that the male has prepared for her and lay its eggs
  • The male will fertilize them, then leave
  • The female will deposit all of the fertilized eggs into its mouth, which is why Mbunas are called mouthbrooder fish

The Mbuna will keep the eggs in its mouth until they hatch to protect them from predators. The female will do the same with the fry. She will only let the fry out to feed and then suck them back into its mouth. This will considerably increase the fry’s survival, seeing how other Mbunas aren’t as considerate regarding the fry’s wellbeing.

Even the Mbuna fathers will eat the fry if the female fails to protect them.

How Long do Mbunas Hold Eggs?

Mbuna cichlids will hold their eggs for periods varying between 20 to 36 days. Some may hold them for less than that, depending on when they hatch. Electric yellow cichlids, for instance, may only hold them for 18 days or even less, depending on the eggs’ size.

It turns out that the larger the eggs are when the female lays them, the sooner they will hatch. This will minimize the incubation period. The female shelters the eggs in her mouth to protect them from predators and keep them warm at the same time.

How do I Know if Mbuna Cichlid is Holding Eggs?

It may be difficult to tell if your female Mbuna is holding eggs at first. Female Mbunas possess a through pouch that they will use to hold the growing eggs. It is located right under the chin, and it can hold up to 80 eggs at a time. It also expands as the eggs grow, which means you may not be able to tell that the female is holding them initially.

Several days in, and you should tell the difference. The female’s throat will expand visibly as the eggs grow to the point where the female will no longer be able to close its mouth. This is a sign that the eggs are about to hatch.

The even more impressive aspect is that Mbuna fry will exit their mothers’ mouth pouch to feed and investigate their habitat but go right in at the first sign of danger. This will provide Mbuna fry with a safe space, which means that Mbunas don’t necessarily need a separate breeding tank.

Guppies, for instance, tend to eat their young, which means that if you plan on keeping the fry, a breeding tank is a necessity. With Mbunas, the females will protect the fry from other Mbuna adults, so your intervention will be minimal when it comes to ensuring the fry’s survival.

How Many Eggs do Mbuna Hold?

Mouthbrooder fish aren’t as proficient in breeding compared to livebearers or egg-laying species. Mbunas even differ among themselves since not all are mouthbrooders. Some are substrate-brooders, meaning that they bury their eggs in the substrate and provide minimal assistance.

Mouthbrooder species will necessarily lay fewer eggs than the latter since they can’t hold too many in their mouth. Young, inexperienced female Mbunas may only lay up to 20 eggs at once, but older ones may boost that number to 80. That’s how many eggs each category of females will be able to hold in their mouths.

Substrate-brooders are capable of laying thousands of eggs depending on the female’s age and experience.

Should You Separate Your Egg-Holding Mbuna?

Not necessarily, but it depends on the female and the population dynamics. Mbuna cichlids tend to be very aggressive even in pristine environmental conditions. Males, especially, display high levels of aggression, sometimes tied to territoriality, other times linking to mating, food, or hierarchical assertiveness.

This type of aggressive behavior will often reflect onto the females, with males being excessively pushy during the mating phase.

If the holding female Mbuna doesn’t show any signs of stress and lives in a relatively stable community, you don’t necessarily need to quarantine it during the ‘pregnancy.’ If your cichlid population is known to be more aggressive and turbulent than normal, then isolation may be the better answer.

Stressed females may spit out fertilized eggs which will become food for the other tank occupants.

Do Mbunas Eat When Holding Eggs?

No, female Mbunas won’t eat until the eggs have hatched. This means that your female Mbuna may fast up to a month, which is how long it will take the eggs to hatch. This is one of the early signs of egg holding in females that refuse food.

If the female looks healthy, active, and doesn’t display any other symptom of disease or infection, the fact that she refuses food may mean she’s holding eggs.

Just to be sure, you should monitor the female for a couple of days. If its behavior or health state seems to deteriorate, something else may be responsible for its lack of appetite. The female will eat again after the fry has hatched, but that doesn’t mean she’s free of responsibilities.

The female will use its mouth pouch similar to marsupial animals like kangaroos which will use their abdominal pouch to shelter their babies. You may occasionally see the cichlid fry exiting their mothers’ mouths to search for food and roam around the environment quite often. The female cichlid will immediately take them in at the smallest sign of danger.

The female will keep the fry in its mouth pouch up to 2 weeks when the fry will grow big enough to no longer need their mothers’ safe space.

Are All Mbuna Cichlids Mouthbrooders?

Yes, all Mbuna cichlids that we know of are mouthbrooders. However, not all cichlids follow this breeding pattern. Some bury their eggs in the substrate or lay them in secluded and hidden areas where other fish can’t spot them so easily. The female will also guard the area and attack any approaching fish.

The male cichlid takes this role in some cichlid species that rely on bi-parental relationships.

In Mbuna cichlids, the father doesn’t have any role. On the contrary, the male Mbuna may eat the fry if they happen to stray too far from the female.

Are Mbunas Aggressive When Holding Eggs?

It depends on the situation. Female Mbunas tend to be more aggressive around males, but that’s primarily because males themselves tend to be pushier and more aggressive towards the females. The female may poke at the males or retreat into hiding to avoid their presence.

Their behavior is also fueled by their protective instinct, which will remain visible throughout the holding phase. If you notice your female Mbuna displaying excessive aggressive behavior, monitor the cichlid population to assess the interactions between the fish. Some cichlids may be overtly aggressive and stress the holding female, at which point removing the aggressors may be necessary.


To close things out, here are several interesting facts about the Mbuna cichlids and their reproductive behavior:

  • Female Mbunas can hold unfertilized eggs – The female will lay eggs as normal, but there’s no way for her to fertilize them if no males are present. This ultimately doesn’t matter since the female will pick up the eggs in its mouth pouch anyway. She may keep them there up to 10 days until the eggs begin to decay. At that point, she will either eat or spit them.
  • The female Mbuna will lose weight during holding – This is the result of the female not eating during the incubation period. Some people panic when their female Mbuna appears skinnier by the day, but this is entirely normal. The female will get back to normal soon after the eggs have hatched.
  • About stripping cichlid eggs – Stripping refers to the process of removing the eggs from the female’s mouth to keep them in a safer environment. Most cichlid breeders do this because isolating the female cichlid during the incubation phase may not be the ideal move. Cichlids don’t do well alone, at which point simply removing the eggs would be the better alternative. The process involves holding the female and opening its mouth gently so that the eggs float out. Just tread carefully since the stripping process may stress out the female, so being gentle about it is a must.

Don’t worry about the Mbunas’ reproductive process since it requires minimal assistance from your part. If you’re concerned about the fry’s wellbeing, make sure you inform yourself on the stripping method, which will allow you to protect the fry until they’re old enough for the main tank.

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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