How to Setup a Mbuna Cichlid Tank?

Whether you are a cichlid lover or not, Mbuna cichlids will win you over. It’s only necessary to be more experienced as an aquarist, since these cichlids aren’t exactly beginner-friendly. Mbuna cichlids are slightly different than the regular cichlids you may be familiarized with.

That’s primarily because Mbuna cichlids have evolved in an enclosed environment, Lake Malawi, allowing them to develop a variety of different characteristics. They are still cichlids, but with slight variations that you’ll need to consider when looking to accommodate them at home.

If you’ve already selected your favorite Mbuna species, the next question in line is – How do you set up the tank? Unlike other cichlid species, Mbunas display unique environmental needs and preferences to feel comfortable and at ease in their new habitat.

How to Set Up Mbuna Cichlid Tank?

The tank’s overall layout makes a huge difference in supporting the cichlids wellbeing long-term. A lot of variables come into play here, including:

– Choose The Right Tank Size

There’s a unique peculiarity about Mbuna cichlids that you don’t really see with other fish. Unlike most tank fish species, Mbuna not only do not mind overcrowding, but rather demand it. This is all due to their biological and social makeover, which says that Mbuna cichlids are less aggressive, happier, and more stable in very large groups.

Which is already unusual since this behavior is most common in schooling fish, but Mbunas are not schooling species.

As a general rule, you should keep between 8 to 12 4-inch Mbuna cichlids in a 30-gallon tank. This, of course, is the minimal requirement. You can also keep more than that since these cichlids do just fine in overcrowding conditions. The obvious problem remains that of degrading water quality which is the direct result of overcrowding due to an increase in fish waste.

And Mbuna tanks aren’t exempt from this issue. As a result, you will need to perform frequent water changes, sometimes 2 times a week, and change up to 40% of the water to ensure the system’s stability.

Another important aspect relates to Mbunas’ lifestyle. Most Mbuna species are bottom-dwellers, spending most of their time in caves and near rocks. So, there’s no point in getting a tall tank since they will rarely reach the water’s surface. Instead, get a longer one, providing Mbuna cichlids with more horizontal space.

They are also extremely territorial and will often use disproportionate violence to point that out. So, despite their overcrowded conditions, Mbunas need a larger environment to set up their territorial dominance.

– Start with the Nitrogen Cycle

The nitrogen cycle is crucial before introducing Mbuna cichlids to their new environment. Despite being hardy and adaptable, these fish come from clean waters and cannot cope with ammonia and nitrites. Even the smallest increase in environmental ammonia can hurt these cichlids more than other fish.

To prevent this issue, always perform a thorough nitrogen cycle before introducing the fish to their new habitat. The cycle should last around 6 to 8 weeks, and the ultimate goal is to promote the growth of beneficial bacteria that’s in charge of consuming ammonia and turning it into nitrites and then nitrates.

You can perform the nitrogen cycle with or without the fish present, and you’re obviously interested in the latter. In short, the cycling process goes like this:

  • Prepare the tank with dechlorinated tank water – Dechlorinating the water is essential to remove chlorine and other harmful components that may kill beneficial bacteria.
  • Use a good filtering system – I would use a sponge-based one that will serve as the perfect house for rich cultures of beneficial bacteria.
  • Use an ammonia source – Your tank has no fish to produce waste and release ammonia, so you’ll have to obtain the substance by other means. Using fish food is a popular one since it replicates the natural conditions under which ammonia is formed in a fish-full tank. Add some fish food and allow it to decompose for a couple of days. If you want to speed up the process, also add an ammonia solution to the mix.
  • Use an aquarium test kit – This kit is a must since it allows you to monitor the water parameters to make sure whatever you’re doing works.
  • Consider a heater – The heating system will create the ideal conditions for the beneficial bacteria to flourish. A clear must-have.

After setting up the equipment, it all comes down to changing the water whenever the nitrite level reaches 5ppm. This may require several water changes until the ammonia and nitrite levels reach 0 and the tank water shows signs of nitrates. At that point, you know that the water now contains beneficial bacteria, and the nitrogen cycle is complete.

– Good Filtration System

A reliable filtration system is necessary to clean the tank water of ammonia and nitrites. The filtering system will also house billions of beneficial bacteria that contribute to maintaining the environment’s balance.

A good option is the Fluval 07 Series Performance Canister Filter. This piece is 25% quieter than other filters and will only consume the equivalent of a household lightbulb. This model can deliver up to 383 gal/h of pumping power on a constant basis. It is energy-efficient, durable, and consistent over large periods of time, making it an excellent choice for any cichlid tank.

The filter is necessary to your Mbuna cichlid tank, especially since your cichlids will most likely be overcrowded. You should also get a water tester to monitor the water parameters and be more thorough about the cleaning and maintenance process.

– Water Heating

Most Mbuna cichlid species prefer water temperatures between 75 to 84 F, depending on the species and the biological programming of its natural habitat. Whatever the case may be, Mbuna cichlids shouldn’t experience temperatures lower than 75 F, otherwise, they might experience health issues long-term.

A heating system is necessary to provide them with a comfortable environment, especially if the room temperature where your tank is located isn’t stable.

The Hygger Aquarium Heater is a great option in this sense, coming with 2 heating modes, 800W of power, an auto shut-off valve when overheating or not fully submerged, and a waterproof digital display. The piece also showcases an automatic smart thermostat, allowing you to control the water’s temperature and keep it within optimal ranges.

This heater is great for 60-120-gallon tanks, holding an extended cichlid family of up to 2 dozen cichlids or more.

– Aquarium Lighting

Fortunately, Mbuna cichlids don’t need any special lighting conditions. After all, most species live in rocky aquatic regions and don’t stroll to the water’s surface too often. They will do just fine with moderate lighting conditions.

– Choose the Right Substrate

Since they’re bottom dwellers, it’s natural for Mbuna cichlids to spend most of their time around the substrate to look for food and play around. This makes sand the natural choice since that’s what they have in their natural environment too. Mbuna cichlids will play around in the sand all the time, burrowing themselves and digging around for food.

Make sure you choose the substrate wisely. There are several options of sandy substrates, divided by color, particle size, and even mineral content.

– Choose Less Aggressive Mbunas

This isn’t really offering advice but rather presenting an option. If you don’t like excessively aggressive cichlids, you can get only partially aggressive ones. This doesn’t mean you can accommodate them in community tanks, but at least there will be less cichlid-cichlid violence to worry about.

Some of the less violent species of Mbuna cichlids include Red Zebra, Perlmutt cichlid, Yellow-Tail Acei, Lavender Mbuna, and many others. These vary in color and display an overall calmer behavior compared to other species like Kennyi, Demasoni, and Auratus cichlids.

– Buy Juvenile Mbuna Cichlids

Getting juvenile cichlids rather than full adults helps with the accommodation process. Cichlids are most comfortable in familiar environments and tend to establish life-long territories in their favorite regions. Getting your cichlids when they’re still juveniles will allow them to adapt to their new environment a lot easier.

Just don’t be fooled into thinking that younger cichlids are less aggressive. Mbuna cichlids are born kicking and even juvenile ones will attack and kill other fish around them if they can. So, don’t think you can introduce them to a fish tank while they’re still young, hoping they will become more comfortable and acceptant of other fish. They won’t.

– Buy a Large School of Mbunas

To be clear, Mbuna cichlids don’t live in schools, but you get the point. Despite not being schooling fish, Mbunas still prefer the company of their own, preferably a lot of them. I suggest getting multiple Mbuna cichlids with your first purchase, preferably 12 or more, and setting up a tank to house all of them in optimal conditions.

With time, you can even increase and even double that number. Mbuna cichlids are most comfortable in very large groups, even in conditions that would represent overcrowding for other species. Just keep in mind that these cichlids require more extensive tank maintenance and more frequent water changes due to this crowding behavior.

Can You Use Live Plants in Mbuna Tank?

You can, but I wouldn’t recommend it. Mbuna cichlids aren’t plant-friendly, especially due to their inclinations towards ravishing the substrate. These cichlids will eater eat, unearth, destroy, or obliterate any plants you introduce to their aquarium, not necessarily in this order.

If you’ve decided that the tank needs plants, despite your cichlids’ murderous intent, rely on java fern. Its taste will discourage Mbunas enough to prevent them from chewing it. Hopefully.

Other than that, Mbunas don’t need plants, so long as they have a potent filtering system and you perform regular water changes.

How to Maintain Mbuna Tank?

When it comes to maintaining your cichlids’ tank, there are 3 major issues to discuss:

– Regular Water Changes

Mbuna cichlids require more frequent water changes than other species due to their overcrowding tendencies. Since they feel most comfortable in larger groups, you will need to overcrowd your cichlids to reduce their aggression, which is bound to lead to environmental issues.

Your cichlids will produce more waste, become responsible for more food residues stranded on the substrate, and increase ammonia levels as a result. Mbuna tank water will deteriorate in quality faster than you would expect.

While other fish species require 1 water change of 10-15% per week, Mbunas may need 2 water changes of up to 40% weekly. The amount of water to change in one session depends on how many cichlids you have. The same factor will also influence how many water changes are necessary weekly to ensure water quality.

The more cichlids you have, the more you will have to work to keep their habitat clean and protect them against ammonia buildup. Remember, Mbuna cichlids are very sensitive to ammonia and nitrites, with even low levels causing health issues.

– Substrate Vacuuming

This is another must-do, seeing how large groups of cichlids will produce a lot of waste. This effect tends to be exacerbated when providing your cichlids with poor diets, consisting of more protein than they need. Which suggests a potential loophole.

Offer your cichlids mostly vegetarian meals and seek easy-to-digest fish food alternatives designed specifically for Mbuna cichlids. These will result in less fish waste, preventing waste accumulation on the substrate.

You should also avoid overfeeding for similar reasons. Overfeeding your cichlids will result in excess fish waste and rogue food particles sinking in the substrate and decaying out of sight. Food residues and fish waste accumulation are the 2 main causes for elevated ammonia levels in all tanks, especially overcrowded cichlid environments.

– Regular Filter Cleaning

It goes without saying that an Mbuna cichlid tank will cause your filtering system to work overtime. The filter won’t risk clogging that often since there are no plants available, but it still requires regular cleaning and maintenance. Just make sure you’re not so thorough about it.

Your tank filter will house billions of beneficial microorganisms, all of which consume either ammonia or nitrites. These bacteria are crucial to maintaining the system’s stability long-term. Only clean your filters enough to remove excess dirt and algae deposits and unclog any component that may affect the filter’s functioning.

Don’t sterilize the system, and don’t use chlorinated water or other chemicals in the cleaning process for obvious reasons. How often you should cleanse the filter depends on how stacked your aquarium is and fast it becomes dirty.

I would say once every 2 weeks should suffice, although that can vary on a per case basis.


Mbuna cichlids are more difficult to keep, which is why I don’t recommend them to novice aquarists. However, with proper care and preparation, you can accommodate them in their dream habitat. Just remember the essentials:

  • Keep them in large groups, preferably at least 12 in a 30-gallon tank
  • A filtering system is a must, and so is the heater
  • No need for plants, but a lot of need for rocks and cave structures
  • A sandy substrate is necessary in any Mbuna tank
  • Consider an herbivorous-leaning diet with occasional protein treats
  • Keep at least 5 females for every male since male Mbunas keep harems in the wild
  • Never try to accommodate Mbuna cichlids to community tanks; ignore this advice, accept the consequences
  • Go for less aggressive Mbuna species for your first try

Stick to this list, and you will be starting on the right foot.

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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