How to Tell Mbuna Cichlid Male or Female?

Native to Lake Malawi, Mbuna Cichlids make up a large group of African freshwater fish species. Despite being such an exotic group of fish, they’re quite popular and often a top pick for aquarists all over the world.

There are many species and colors to choose from. Quirky Mbunas bring life and excitement to any aquarium, no doubt. However, Mbunas are quite aggressive and territorial.

If you plan to keep them in a group, you have to pay close attention to the ratio of male to female fish. Distinguishing between Mbuna males and females isn’t always easy, but it’s an important skill. It will help you organize your aquarium and breed your fish if you so choose. Developing an eye for the subtle details takes time. But I’ll tell you exactly what to look for!

Mbuna Male vs Female – How to Tell the Gender?

Most Mbuna species are dimorphic, which means that males and females have clear and distinct characteristics. However, this isn’t the case for all Mbuna cichlids. When things aren’t so clear-cut, you’ll have to look for the less subtle signs.

The main distinguishing characteristics between male and female Mbunas are color, size, fin shape, behavior, egg spots, and venting spots. We’ll take a closer look at these, one by one:

– Coloration

Coloring is often the easiest way to distinguish between male and female mbunas. Male and female fish often display different colors as they approach sexual maturity. But this is not always the case. Not all species exhibit strong sexual dimorphism. Still, there are some color differences even in species with low sexual dimorphism. Let’s take a look at the most common mbuna species:

  • The Bumblebee Cichlid (Pseudotropheus crabro) is easier to sex than other species. Juvenile fish and females have yellow bodies with dark brown or black vertical stripes. As male fish develop, their bodies turn grey-ish or blue and display very dark blue stripes.
  • The Golden Mbuna (Melanochromis auratus) is another cichlid that displays strong sexual dimorphism. Juvenile fish and females have bright yellow bodies with black and yellow horizontal stripes. Sexually mature males have dark brown or black bodies and light blue horizontal stripes.
  • The Red Zebra Mbuna (Maylandia estherae) is a polymorphic species. It comes in multiple colors and those differ depending on sex. Female fish can be red-orange, beige, or orange with dark spots. Male fish are usually bright blue, but pale pink morphs with blue fins also exist.
  • The Lemon Yellow Lab (Labidochromis caeruleus) is one of the less dimorphic species. Both males and females have bright electric-yellow bodies. Adult males, however, sport deeper, more intense colors, while females tend to be lighter. Male fish also have black anal and ventral fins.
  • The Cobalt Blue Mbunas (Maylandia callainos) are all colored in a beautiful vibrant blue. Males have deeper colors, while females are lighter, sometimes with a grey-ish tint.
  • The Maingano Mbunas (Pseudotropheus cyaneorhabdos) also have a similar appearance. Both males and females have dark bodies with blue stripes. But as usual, males have deeper and more vibrant colors.

– Body Size

Body size is another way of distinguishing between male and female fish. This method can help you sex fish that don’t otherwise show obvious sexual dimorphism, such as through colors. Typically, a male mbuna will be noticeably larger than a female. This size difference can be up to 1 inch.

Male fish will be longer and sometimes more slender-looking. Female fish might appear stouter in some species. Females generally have larger, rounder bellies that contribute to this different visual appearance. However, it’s worth noting that there are some disadvantages when relying on body size alone.

First of all, you have to wait until the fish reach maturity. While they’re still developing, the size difference won’t be easily noticeable. Also, not all species have such evident size differences. In some mbunas, males and females might be very similar in size.

– Fin Shape

As they reach maturity, male mbuna fish develop a different shape in their dorsal, caudal, and anal fins. Again, this method doesn’t help when sexing juvenile fish. But it can help you distinguish between adult males and females that look otherwise similar.

The males usually have larger fins. The outer edges might look angled, and the fins end in long, pointy tips. If the fins stand out easily, the fish is most probably a sexually-matured male. In comparison to males, females have less-prominent fins.

Female mbunas’ fins are shorter and have more rounded edges. Sometimes, female dorsal fins might be more square-shaped. In some species, both male and female dorsal fins might appear straight and square. But males always have an up-turned fin corner. The difference can be subtle, but it’s still there!

– Behavior

Behavior is another distinguishing factor between males and females. Mbunas are generally known to display aggressive behavior regardless of gender. Female mbunas are territorial and aggressive. But male mbunas are even more so. If you see a fish chasing and bullying its tankmates, it’s most probably a male.

Male mbunas also appear more flamboyant and extroverted, if you could call them that. They are very active and like leaving their mark wherever they go. You might see them burrowing, digging holes, and sometimes creating nests for reproduction.

Female cichlids might appear more passive. But they can become even more territorial and aggressive than their male counterparts when breeding. But otherwise, they have an easier time ignoring other fish in the tank. Female fish will protect developing fry by carrying them in their mouths. If a fish stops feeding for a short time, it’s probably a female looking after her babies.

– Venting Spot

Venting is a more invasive but very precise method of sexing your fish. It’s the process through which you identify a fish’s vent to determine its sex. The vent is a small hole on the fish’s lower body. It’s located close to the anal fin and it serves as an outlet for either eggs or milt (depending on the fish’s sex).

To do this, you’ll have to scoop your fish out of the water to get a closer look. You’ll have to be quick and gentle. This might be stressful for the fish, so I’d recommend it as a last resort. If all else fails, here’s how to distinguish between males and females when venting the fish:

  • Male genitals are made up of two holes lined vertically across the fish’s lower body. These holes are roughly the same size and they’re surrounded by dark pigmentation. One hole is the anus, while the other hole is where the milt exits the body during reproduction.
  • Female genitals are located in the same area. But the two holes aren’t the same size. The vent hole is noticeably larger than the other. The pigmentation around a female’s genitals is also lighter than what we see in males. The larger hole is connected to the egg tube. This is where the eggs exit the fish’s body.

– Egg Spots

And finally, another method to sex your fish is by analyzing the egg spots. Egg spots are small oval blotches of color located on a mbuna’s anal fin. The anal fin is located on the ventral side, closest to the tail. In most species, only males have these egg spots.

They are used to attract females and they give male fish a higher chance of fertilizing female eggs. These spots can be tiny and subtly colored, sometimes cream or greyish. In some species, the egg spots are large and brightly colored, usually bright yellow or deep orange.

Although less common, female mbunas can also have egg spots. This can make things more difficult when sexing the fish. But usually, female fish only have one egg spot. Female egg spots will be less vibrant and colorful than a male’s.

When Can You Tell the Gender of Mbuna Fry?

This depends on the species. Some fish develop quickly, while others are late bloomers. The environment, diet, and water parameters can also play a role in speeding up or slowing the development of mbuna fry. In species with similar body coloring, you might not notice any major differences until the fish reach sexual maturity.

In species where males and females are different colors, it might take a few weeks to a couple months until males start developing their colors. Sexual dimorphism becomes more apparent once males have reached at least 1.5 inches in size. Mbuna cichlids typically reach their full color potential in 6-8 months.

The dominant male will be the quickest to differentiate itself from the group. Dominated male fish might never reach their full potential, or it might take them a lot longer. Most mbuna cichlids reach sexual maturity at around 4-6 months. By this time, you’ll probably be able to vent them quite easily.

Do Mbuna Cichlids Change Gender?

Certain fish can change gender. But it’s unlikely that mbuna cichlids are among these species. I’ve seen some heated debates on this subject. Some aquarium hobbyists claim that their mbunas changed gender, typically from female to male. However, the evidence is usually inconclusive and this might be just an erroneous conclusion.

I can tell you that mbunas can certainly change their appearance to resemble a different gender. But this is not the equivalent of the fish changing their sex. A male fish won’t be able to produce eggs. Similarly, a female fish that presents as a male won’t be able to fertilize eggs. But here’s how this confusion started:

In an all-female aquarium, the largest and most dominant female will sometimes begin behaving aggressively. She might bully and chase the other female fish, which many mistake for mating behavior. Sometimes, an alpha female might even appear to spontaneously develop male coloration to express its dominance.

This brings me to the second point— sometimes, the “female” fish have been a male all along. In a fish tank, the dominant male usually intimidates other fish and hoards resources for itself. But other males have the potential of becoming “alphas” if given the chance. These are called “subdominant” males.

When the former dominant male is removed from the tank, the subdominant male senses an opportunity to take up the vacant role. In such cases, you might see female-presenting fish spontaneously change to male coloration within a matter of minutes. But make no mistake, these were just the next males in the hierarchy.


In sexually dimorphic species, males and females show completely different coloring. In other species, however, the details are more subtle. However, some things remain true for most Mbunas. Males have darker and richer colors, while female Mbunas might look paler or less saturated. Males are larger than females, on average by around 1 inch.

Females have rounder bellies. Females also have rounder-looking or even square-shaped fins. Males fins are longer and end in pointy tips. Male Mbunas also have multiple large and bright egg spots on their anal fins.

Males tend to be more aggressive, but this applies mostly to the dominant male in the tank. If all else fails and you still can’t tell for sure, you can also vent your fish for a definitive answer.

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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