Mbuna Cichlid Tank Mates & Compatibility Chart

Mbuna cichlids are mean-looking, colorful, and come with an air of exclusivity due to their limited spread in the wild, so I understand where their charm comes from. Mbuna cichlids only live in Lake Malawi, where it is estimated that you can find around 1,000 different species, although the real number is unknown.

These cichlids are spread across multiple species, and the Mbuna tag only describes the category that all these species fall in. The interesting aspect is that all Mbuna cichlids have evolved differently than most other species from around the globe. The reason for that is their limited localization.

The current understanding is that Lake Malawi was formed approximately 2 million years ago, with research suggesting an even earlier date than that. When the lake formed, several cichlids and other fish species remained stranded in the newly formed basin and had to adapt to their new environment. These cichlid species developed unique characteristics that separated them from the rest with time.

At this point, Lake Malawi houses 3 major categories of cichlids, aulonocara (peacock) cichlids, haps (haplochromis), and Mbuna. The latter are also called rock cichlids due to their habitat’s layout and feeding habits (scraping algae and organic matter off of rocks.)

When it comes to Mbuna cichlids, not all of them are fit for the captivity life, and few are compatible with any type of community tank. This is because of cichlids’ innate aggressive tendencies and territorial behavior, ruining their chances at forming stable communities with other species.

In other words, Mbuna cichlids aren’t suitable with community tanks unless you take extra measures to make sure you accommodate all species, which is nearly impossible.

There are several reasons for that, including:

  • Territorial behavior – Most fish will display territorial behavior, but not to the same degree as cichlids. These fish take their territorial instincts very seriously and will attack most fish on sight. Things can get bloody soon since cichlids’ aggression is pretty unhinged.
  • Innate aggressive tendencies – Some species of Mbuna cichlids are aggressive for the sake of it. They will display violent behavior against any other fish species other than their own. This is not something that you’ll be able to mitigate easily. The best option, in this scenario, would be to house those cichlids in species-only tanks and avoid any type of community environments.
  • Specific social requirements – Cichlids aren’t schooling fish, but they need to live in large groups to remain active, comfortable, and healthy long-term. In many cases, you may even need to overcrowd them a bit. This leaves little room for any other fish species, especially when considering the cichlids’ display of territorial domination.
  • No plants allowed – Mbuna cichlids will unearth, chew, and destroy any plants around their environment. This means that you can’t rely on plants to allow other fish species to hide from aggressors in an attempt to create a stable community tank.

Given all these factors, can you keep Mbuna cichlids in a community tank? Probably, but I highly doubt it, and I definitely don’t recommend trying it. Stay safe and only keep your Mbuna cichlids in a species-only environment.

In this sense, you have 2 options to consider when selecting the ideal Mbuna species.

Less Aggressive Mbuna Cichlids

Keeping aggressive fish can become tiring at some point since you’ll have to monitor their population dynamics constantly. For this reason, some people resort to more peaceful species of Mbuna, although ‘peaceful’ isn’t really the best word here. But, hey, at least they’re manageable to a point.

Some of the least aggressive Mbuna species you can get include:

– Electric Yellow cichlid

You may know this one as the yellow lab or the electric yellow lab. Thanks to its introverted and shy attitude, this 4-inch cichlid is one of the most popular Mbuna species among aquarists. It’s not as aggressive as other African cichlids, but it will still display visible territorial behavior and spurs of violence occasionally.

Most of this violence targets fish similar in size and coloring to the cichlid itself, causing the yellow lab to see them as competition for territory and food. To minimize this species’ aggressive tendencies, keep it in groups of at least 6 with only 1 male present.

Such a group will require 30 gallons of water, sandy substrate, and plenty of caves, rocks, and robust plants to withstand their occasional aggression.

– Yellow-Tail Acei

The Acei cichlid is another popular option for species-only tanks due to its vibrant blue and yellow-green covering its dorsal and tail fins. This herbivorous species will thrive on algae wafers, spirulina tablets, and herbivore pellets and flakes. They will also eat algae naturally occurring on the rocks and wood, decorating their environment.

However, don’t be fooled about this species’ dietary preferences. This herbivorous cichlid is still aggressive and territorial, just not as much as other species. It’s still unlikely that Acei cichlids will do well in community tanks, so I would advise against testing that option.

– Lavender Mbuna

The Lavender Mbuna is probably one of the least violent species of Mbuna, which already qualifies it as fit for beginners. Not like Mbuna cichlids are beginner-friendly in general, but this one is more manageable overall.

It is an omnivorous species and will consume a variety of foods, although you should avoid protein-rich food sources. Like any other Mbuna cichlids, the Lavender species are also at risk of Malawi bloat, a disease that’s often triggered by an improper diet, causing digestive problems.

The Lavender Mbuna is a mouthbrooder – a type of fish that keeps its own fertilized eggs in its mouth until they hatch. This is a typical breeding behavior for many species of Mbuna cichlids and cichlids in general.

– Perlmutt Cichlid

This cichlid is a bit more controversial since it isn’t clear if it’s a separate species yet. These fish come in light colors, generally white, yellow, and pink variations, and they prefer living in a heavily rocky habitat. There are some critical differences between Perlmutt cichlids and other Mbuna species.

One of them relates to water temperature since Perlmutts prefer colder waters, around 74-79 °F. The other difference relates to food preferences. Unlike many other cichlid species, this one is fonder of meaty foods with a higher protein content. Even so, you should feed them a varied diet that would also include vegetables like spinach, cucumber, and algae to keep them healthy long-term.

– Afra Cobue Cichlid

This is another moderately aggressive species of Mbuna, most commonly known as dogtooth cichlid, thanks to their unicuspid tooth resembling that of a dog. The male and female are different in coloration, as males come with blue and yellow nuances with vertical dark blue or black stripes. The female has no stripes and will display duller colors, typically yellow.

The Afra Cobue cichlids are more aggressive towards similar-looking fish that they view as competitors. They also don’t do too well in mixed tanks due to their territorial behavior, albeit not as brutal as in other cichlids. Keep them in single-species tanks, provide each male with a harem of 4-5 females, and feed them an omnivorous diet to keep them healthy over the years.

– Red Zebra Mbuna

This is a slightly larger species of Mbuna cichlids that displays moderate aggressive behavior but more visible territorial tendencies. This species may require more space than others, with a group of 6 being most comfortable in a 30-gallon setting.

The Red Zebra Mbuna comes in red and orange variations with no stripes of any kind, unlike what the name suggests. This cichlid species can grow up to 5 inches, which is slightly higher than the regular 4-inch Mbuna cichlid, and is more peaceful, let’s say than other cichlid species.

Overall, this species is easier to maintain since its aggression only relates to territorial domination. If it has enough space and you limit the number of males, the Red Zebra Mbuna will remain relatively peaceful and comfortable within its environment.

– Socolofi Cichlid

This species appears mostly in blue shades with light blue, whiteish bodies flanked by dark blue fins. It is a moderately-aggressive species that won’t cause much trouble provided it has its basic necessities covered. These include a proper, herbivorous-leaning diet, plenty of space, and a rocky habitat with multiple hiding spots.

You will rarely see the Socolofi cichlid reaching the water’s surface, but this is a Mbuna cichlid-specific behavior anyway. No matter how peaceful it might seem, don’t introduce the Socolofi cichlid to community tanks. After all, this is a cichlid, and things can change fast regarding their behavioral stability.

– Blue Mbuna

If you like big, blue, and mean-looking fish, the Blue Mbuna checks all bullet-points successfully. This is a giant among Mbuna cichlids, as it can reach sizes of up to 12 inches and, subsequently, require even more space to thrive. The Blue Mbuna isn’t particularly difficult to maintain despite its intimidating size, so long as you understand its basic needs.

Fortunately, the Blue Mbuna is a hardy species and can accommodate fairly easy to a different environment. Even so, make sure you provide the fish with a mostly herbivorous diet, stable water temperatures, and more or less pristine water conditions. Weekly water changes are a must.

– Bluegray Mbuna

There are several differences between Bluegray Mbuna cichlids and other Mbuna originating from the same habitat. The most important one is the obvious dimorphism.

Generally speaking, cichlids are very difficult to distinguish by sex since both males and females display a variety of colors with only a few gender identification markers. The most consistent difference between male and female cichlids is the size since males tend to be slightly larger.

The Blugray Mbuna also displays color differences between the genders, which is why this fish tend to be quite popular among aquarists. The males display color-mixed bodies with dark blue, light blue, and white stripes, while females are pure yellow or gold. No other color variation or pattern.

Other than that, the Bluegray Mbuna showcases typical Mbuna cichlid behavior. It requires a rocky habitat with little-to-no plants, enjoys herbivorous-oriented meals, and displays territorial behavior, albeit at a moderate degree. Not extremely aggressive, but not really peaceful either.

Very Aggressive Mbuna Cichlids

Some people would argue that keeping non-aggressive or mildly aggressive cichlids defeats the entire purpose of owning a cichlid in the first place. Cichlids are made to be angry and vicious, which leads us to the ‘very aggressive cichlids’ category.

Some of the most popular excessively aggressive Mbuna cichlids include:

– Auratus Cichlid

This is what violence looks like in fish form. These medium-sized cichlids (around 4-4.5 inches) display aggressive behavior when feeding, guarding their territory, mating, playing, interacting with other fish, and swimming. So, basically, at all times. To mitigate their aggressive tendencies, many aquarists keep them in very large groups to the point of overstocking.

This has the effect of spreading their aggression among multiple members to avoid targeted violence against only a few. The problem is that overcrowding can have harmful consequences, including poorer water quality and increased ammonia levels.

Auratus cichlids require weekly water changes of 20-40% and regular tank maintenance to prevent that. You may sometimes need to perform bi-weekly water changes, depending on your cichlids’ waste production.

I don’t recommend this cichlid species to beginners, given its volatile behavior and complex lifestyle requirements.

– Kennyi Cichlid

The Kennyi cichlid does 3 things different than other cichlids:

  1. Displays clear-cut dimorphism – Male and female Kennyi cichlids come in different colors. Males are orange, while females are light blue with dark blue zebra-like stripes. The color difference between the sexes becomes more obvious in adult cichlids.
  2. Takes violence to another level – This is among the most violent species of cichlids available. Even juvenile Kennyi cichlids display impressive aggression towards smaller fish and won’t back down until death comes. And death will come eventually.
  3. Offers the potential for even more violence – If you want a truly aggressive species of cichlids, go for wild Kennyi cichlids. These are even more violent than captivity-bred ones, which is an amazing feat on its own.

– Golden Mbuna

As cute-looking and gracious this species is, as violent and murderous it can become. The Golden Mbuna typically reaches size up to 4.5 inches, but it may grow larger depending on the tank’s size. An interesting fact about Golden Mbunas is that they like to live in groups, as is the case with Mbuna cichlids, but they actually hate it.

They can’t stand other fish species, and they can’t stand their own, as constant fighting will erupt frequently among their ranks. This means that there’s little you can do to prevent the Golden Mbuna from fighting; there is no taming here. Male Golden Mbunas ranked lower on the hierarchical scale will most likely be killed by the dominant one(s).

The females are mouthbrooders and, when stressed, may spit out or eat their eggs. So, make sure to keep plenty of females and only 1 or 2 males, at most, to avoid female stress.

– Demasoni Cichlids

Demasoni cichlids are fairly small, only able to grow up to 3 inches. They are also quite beautiful, displaying zebra-like conic bodies, combining light blue and dark blue stripes. They are omnivorous, can live up to 10 years in ideal conditions, and are cute, inquisitive, and dangerous.

Their dorsal fin is almost always in an attack position because the Demasoni cichlid is always in an attack state of mind. The only way to regulate its violent behavior is by keeping it in larger groups of at least 12 individuals.

Other than that, this cichlid falls in line with other species of cichlids. It requires a balanced diet with more herbivorous elements like vegetables, plants, and algae and needs a clean environment with regular water changes. You should feed your Demasoni cichlids several small meals per day rather than a larger one.

How to Deal with Aggression in Mbuna Tank?

The first step towards minimizing aggression in your Mbuna tank is to prevent community environments. Only pair Mbuna cichlids with other Mbuna cichlids, even if belonging to different species. I suggest keeping one species at first and seeing how they do, then introducing a different species later on.

But keeping Mbuna cichlids in species-only tanks will not remove aggression. To minimize the problem even further, you have to resort to other tools and strategies like:

  • Get a Bigger Tank – Mbuna cichlids are very territorial and demand a lot of space, males in particular. It’s important to note that these cichlids don’t stray too far from the substrate, so you don’t need a very tall tank. If you’re to increase your tank’s size, consider adding more horizontal space.
  • Add More Decoration – The more decorations available, the more hiding spots your cichlids have. This will keep them more comfortable and will allow the bullied to escape their aggressors. Rely on various rocks, live rocks, and coral-like systems to keep the cichlids safe and comfortable in their new habitat.
  • Get a Bigger School – It seems like most Mbuna cichlids are calmer and more peaceful in larger groups. This means you might need to overcrowd your fish a bit which isn’t necessarily a problem since cichlids don’t mind it that much. The only problem is that overcrowding inevitably leads to more fish waste which will degrade the water’s quality faster. As such, you will need to perform weekly or bi-weekly water changes of at least 20-40% each time, depending on how many fish you have.


Cichlids are amazing fish with unique personalities and a vibrant presence. They are also feisty and generally too violent for any community tank, especially a peaceful one.

When choosing your preferred Mbuna cichlids, research the species environmental requirements, behavior, and dietary preferences. Not all Mbuna cichlids abide by the same rules.

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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