15 Amazing Mbuna Cichlid Types
If you’re interested in some exotic and colorful fish to add to your aquarium, you’ve probably already read about mbunas. They’re very popular due to their unique appearance, and most are quite easy to care for. But with so many different mbuna species, which one should you choose? This will depend on what exactly you’re looking for.
Do you want a peaceful fish? Or maybe you need a semi-aggressive fish that can stand its ground? Do you want herbivorous, or omnivorous fish? Do the appearance and size matter? Depending on these factors, some fish might be a better match than others.
But I’ve included a little bit of everything in this list. So, keep reading to find out more about different mbunas, their requirements, personalities, and beautiful colors!
1. Freibergi Cichlid (Labidochromis freibergi)
This hardy and mostly peaceful fish is suitable for beginners. Like all mbunas, this fish is native to Lake Malawi in Africa. There, it only inhabits the areas around Likoma Island, where there’s a rocky substrate.
This tropical freshwater fish is a bottom-dweller and feeder. Its natural diet is omnivorous, so it eats a wide range of foods both in the wild and in captivity. Its ideal water parameters include a water temperature between 78-82°F, a pH range of 7.5-8.5, and a dGH range around 5-30.
This fish has a mild temperament, which makes it a good addition to most community tanks. Freibergi Cichlids are mostly peaceful but can get semi-aggressive in an overstocked aquarium.
It’s got an interesting appearance, as you’d expect of a mbuna. This cichlid grows up to 3-5 inches. It has an elongated body with a round head. The ground color is a rich, vibrant blue, accompanied by multiple dark vertical stripes. Labidochromis freibergi is monomorphic, so both males and females show the same coloring and patterns.
2. Dialeptos Cichlid (Melanochromis dialeptos)
In its natural habitat, the Dialeptos Cichlid lives in rocky areas north of Makanjila, Lake Malawi. This fish prefers a rocky substrate. Dialeptos Cichlids are herbivorous. They live and feed near the bottom, primarily off algae.
Their love for algae makes them a good potential aquarium cleaner. They can keep algae growth in check, and also feed off of plant biofilm. This freshwater fish prefers temperatures around 78-82°F and a pH of 7.8-8.6. In the wild, they live in hard water, so the dGH should be around 10-18.
With regards to personality, this species is semi-aggressive. It takes a bit of tweaking to make them get along with other tankmates, but nothing’s impossible! You’ll just need enough space and plenty of hiding spots. Luckily, this mbuna doesn’t grow much, up to 3.1 inches.
They’re small enough to fit in with most fish species. This species is dimorphic, so males and females are easily distinguishable. Males are dark and have two horizontal yellow stripes. Females are pale yellow with dark stripes.
3. Pearl of Likoma Cichlid (Melanochromis joanjohnsonae)
The Pearl of Likoma Cichlid is native to, you guessed it, the Likoma Island! More specifically the rocky areas of Lake Malawi, around the Likoma Island. You can probably see a pattern here. Like Dialeptos and Freibergi cichlids, this species is a bottom dweller and feeder.
This is an omnivorous species. In the wild, its diet consists mainly of insects, larvae, and small crustaceans. But they can eat pretty much anything when kept in captivity. Its water parameters include warm temperatures between 75-79°F, a pH around 7.0-8.5, and a water hardness around 10-15 dGH.
Like many other cichlids, Melanochromis joanjohnsonae is semi-aggressive. It makes a suitable tankmate for fish with a similar size and personality. It grows up to 3.9 inches. Males are dark blue with reddish horizontal stripes. Females are light greenish-blue with yellow stripes. This species is known for its mesmerizing shiny gills that give it an almost metallic appearance.
4. Blue Zebra Cichlid (Maylandia callainos)
Originally, this species was only found in Nkhata Bay, Lake Malawi. In recent years, it’s also been introduced around Namalenje, Likoma, and Thumbi West islands. This tropical freshwater fish is primarily herbivorous and a bottom-feeder.
When kept in captivity, it’s important to feed it a variety of nutrient-rich plant foods such as algae pellets, vegetable flakes, and frozen or cooked veggies. The food must first sink to the bottom of the aquarium, so you’ll have to pre-soak it in most cases.
Given its natural habitat, its preferred water parameters are similar to most mbunas’. Aim for a temperature around 75°F-79°F, pH 7.5-8.3, and 5-30 dGH. This fish is semi-aggressive, mostly due to its territorial nature. If not kept with other bottom-dwelling fish, it’s unlikely to cause trouble in a community tank.
Blue Zebra Cichlids reach 3-5 inches on average, with males being larger than females. Otherwise, the sexes look similar, with beautiful blue colors that would make even fancy guppies jealous. Males are deeper blue, while females might look paler.
5. Golden Cichlid (Melanochromis auratus)
This tropical freshwater fish can be found in the south of Lake Malawi, from Jalo Reef down to Crocodile Rock. It prefers the same rocky habitat as many other mbuna cichlids.
The golden cichlid is omnivorous, although it’s especially fond of algae. In the wild, it feeds off of loose algae and other biofilm growing on the rocks. You can feed it a variety of tropical fish feed, but remember not to skimp on the greens.
Like other mbunas, this cichlid is quite hardy. It prefers warm water around 78-82°F and a pH of 7.0-8.5. The water should be moderately hard to hard, around 10-15 dGH. The golden cichlid is highly aggressive and territorial with other members of its species. It’s not uncommon for this fish to chase and bite other species either.
Melanochromis auratus is dimorphic. It grows up to 4-5 inches and has a thin, elongated body. Females are yellow with black and white horizontal stripes. Adult males are dark brown or black with bright blue or pale golden stripes.
6. Red Zebra Cichlid (Maylandia estherae)
The Red Zebra Cichlid is perhaps the most popular mbuna on the market. They’re easy to care for and make a good choice for both beginners and experienced aquarists.
This is a bottom-dwelling freshwater fish native to Lake Malawi. It inhabits the rocky areas along the eastern coast, spanning from Chilucha Reef to Narungu. In the wild, it’s an opportunistic feeder, grazing on whatever it finds at the bottom of the water. When kept in captivity, it prefers a mainly herbivorous diet focusing on algae.
Like other members of its genus, this cichlid prefers warm water (75-82°F) that’s slightly alkaline (7.8-8.4 pH). Hardness can range from 10-14 dGH. Personality-wise, the red zebra cichlid can get territorial, but it’s otherwise peaceful. Keeping red zebra cichlids with middle or top-swimming fish can reduce their dominant behavior drastically.
This species grows up to 4-5.5 inches. It’s also polymorphic, which explains its huge popularity. There are many colorful morphs to choose from. Males can be bright blue, pale pink, or blotched. Females are either beige, deep orange, or orange with dark blotches.
7. Elongate Mbuna (Pseudotropheus elongatus)
The Elongate Mbuna inhabits sediment-rich rocky areas of Lake Malawi. It can be found in Mkata and Mbamba Bay. This mbuna, like all others, is a bottom-swimmer and feeder. In the wild, this omnivorous species feeds off of small invertebrates and loose algae growing on rocks.
You can feed it a combination of insects, larvae, and small crustaceans. Tropical fish flakes and pellets make another good source of nutrition. In captivity, this fish needs algae to supplement its diet.
This hardy mbuna prefers a water temperature around 76-82°F and a pH between 7.0-8.6. The water hardness should range from 12 to 18 dGH. Elongate mbunas are highly aggressive and territorial. You need to keep them in a large enough aquarium and pay attention to the ratio of male to female fish. They only make good tankmates for fish of a similar size and temperament.
You’ll also have to house them with species that swim in the upper level of the tank. This mbuna species typically reaches 3.7-5 inches in adulthood. Males are larger and have dark brown or black bodies with vertical blue stripes. Females are a dull brown or grey color. As the name suggests, this species has a long, streamlined body.
8. Red Top Williamsi (Pseudotropheus williamsi)
The Red Top Williamsi is a native freshwater fish of Lake Malawi. It occurs in shallow rocky areas at a depth of less than 6.6 feet. This species has a lake-wide distribution. It can be found in Deep Bay, Nkhata Bay, and around the Mbenji, Likoma, Chisumulu, and Maleri Islands.
It’s an omnivorous, bottom-feeding species. In the wild, its diet consists of insect larvae, plankton, small invertebrates, and small quantities of algae and plant biofilm. In captivity, feeding it a regular tropical fish diet should do the trick.
The ideal water parameters include a temperature between 78-82°F and a slightly alkaline pH around 7.8-8.6. This is a very hardy species, so the water hardness can range between 10 and 20 dGH.
Red Top Williamsi cichlids are mildly aggressive. They aren’t predatory. But they’re mostly loners and don’t like sharing their space with other fish. As long as other tankmates don’t enter their territory, they don’t have much reason to get hostile. Males are most likely to bully other fish, usually other males of their species.
This fish is among the largest mbunas out there, reaching a maximum size of 6.5 inches. It’s also one of the most widespread species and comes in many different subtypes. Some red tops have blue lips, which is pretty cool. Generally, males are blue with black stripes lining their dorsal, anal, and tail fins. Females are dark or greyish yellow with two rows of horizontally-lined dark spots.
9. Yellow-tail Acei Cichlid (Pseudotropheus acei)
Yellow-tail Acei Cichlids are beloved for their beauty and unique behavior. Like all mbunas, they’re native to Lake Malawi. But unlike other cichlids, this fish prefers shallow waters with a sandy and rock-covered substrate. It often swims near the surface and very close to the shoreline.
Yellow-tail mbunas are omnivorous but prefer a diet focused on algae. In the wild, they eat algae and other plant biofilm growing on roots and logs submerged underwater.
You can feed them standard mbuna feed, but remember to include a healthy dose of algae in their diet. This colorful fish has the same water parameters as most other mbunas— 78–82 °F, 7.5-8.6 pH, and 12-18 dGH.
The most atypical thing about them is their behavior. Unlike most other mbunas, this fish prefers swimming close to the surface. It’s also perhaps the most peaceful mbuna out there. In the wild, yellow-tail cichlids group in schools of 30-50 fish while feeding. Obviously, they aren’t territorial or hostile. You don’t have to worry about the male to female ratio in the tank.
But this species grows quite large, up to 6 inches on average. You’ll need to keep them with fish of a similar size. Appearance-wise, this is a monomorphic species. Males and females look very similar. Both have violet-blue bodies, yellow fins, and a streamlined shape.
10. Maingano Cichlid (Melanochromis cyaneorhabdos)
The Maingano Cichlid inhabits the areas around Likoma Island in Lake Malawi. It prefers places with a rocky and sandy substrate, at depths of 16-32 feet. In the wild, this mbuna feeds off of zooplankton and other small invertebrates at the bottom of the lake.
In captivity, you can feed it a plant-heavy diet with lots of algae and vegetables. But remember this species is omnivorous. Small crustaceans, insects, and worms should be supplemented regularly. The Maingano Cichlid’s water parameters are the same as other mbunas’. They’ll need the water to be warm (75-82°F), alkaline (7.4-8.5), and hard (12-18 dGH).
This cichlid is naturally territorial and can become very aggressive with its tankmates. Male mainganos are the cause of most trouble as they’ll try to chase, intimidate, and dominate the other fish. You should only house mainganos together with species that can handle their strong personalities.
Luckily, this is a medium-sized fish, growing only up to 3-4 inches. Males and females look similar, which might make sexing them more difficult. They have dark bodies and light blue vertical stripes. A female’s colors are less intense.
11. Bumblebee Cichlid (Pseudotropheus crabro)
This lovable mbuna is an adventurer. It can be found in many different areas of Lake Malawi, including Nkata Bay, West Reef, Eccles Reef, Chiyamwezi, Chinyankwazi, Mbenji, Maleri, Chisumulu, and Likoma Islands. It also lives in all types of habitats. But it prefers areas with large boulders and caves.
This species is an opportunistic feeder and a true omnivore. In captivity, it accepts whatever is offered but is especially fond of protein-rich foods. The ideal water parameters include a temperature around 78-82°F, a pH of 7.5-8.2, and a hardness level around 12-18 dGH.
As sweet as the name “bumblebee” sounds, don’t be fooled! This mbuna is as territorial as they come. You can expect male fish to become quite aggressive. Choose this mbuna’s tankmates with care, considering both size and temperament.
The bumblebee cichlid grows quite large, around 6-7 inches maximum. Distinguishing males from females is simple though. Female fish and juveniles have beautiful golden bodies with dark vertical stripes, hence the name. Mature males have darker colors. They might be dark with pale vertical stripes, or completely black.
12. Electric Yellow Cichlid (Labidochromis caeruleus)
Electric Yellow Cichlids inhabit the central-western region of Lake Malawi, usually close to the coast. They prefer a rocky and sediment-rich habitat. This fish is a true omnivore and can eat virtually anything. Regular tropical fish feed is a good diet staple. You’ll also have to add some fresh protein-rich and vegetable foods for good measure.
This mbuna’s ideal water parameters include a water temperature around 73-79°F and an alkaline pH around 7.8-8.9. Water hardness should range between 12-18 dGH. Now, onto the good part. You’ll be pleased to learn this mbuna is quite peaceful. It has a mellow temperament, which makes it a good addition to most aquariums.
No wonder this species is so popular among mbuna enthusiasts! Besides its charming personality, this fish is also a real beauty. It grows up to 5.9 inches long and has a streamlined body. It’s a monomorphic species, so males and females look very similar. Both adults and juveniles have bright, rich yellow bodies. There’s one black horizontal line traversing the dorsal and anal fins.
13. Clown Lab Cichlid (Labidochromis chisumulae)
The Clown Lab Cichlid lives in the waters around Chizumulu Island, Malawi. It prefers a rocky and sediment-rich habitat, like most mbunas. This fish is omnivorous but eats a mostly carnivore diet. In the wild, its diet consists mostly of insects, mollusks, and other small invertebrates.
The clown lab is closely related to the yellow lab (Labidochromis caeruleus), so they have similar requirements. Clown Lab Cichlids need warm water (75-83°F), with an alkaline pH (7.8-8.6). Water hardness should fall between 12-18 dGH.
However, one major difference between these species is temperament. While yellow labs are mostly peaceful, clown labs are naturally mildly aggressive. They don’t do well in large groups, and would rather have their own territory.
The clown lab also looks quite different from its counterpart. This fish grows up to 4 inches at most. Both males and females have light blue bodies covered in dark vertical bars. This cichlid also has a sloped forehead and a prominent mouth.
14. Pindani Cichlid (Pseudotropheus socolofi)
The Pindani Cichlid is another good species for beginners. It naturally occurs in Lake Malawi in Mozambique. This mbuna sticks to intermediate areas with a sandy substrate and small rocks for hiding. Pindani cichlids also prefer shallow waters, swimming at a depth of 13-33 feet.
This species is herbivorous. In the wild, it feeds off of short, loose algae and other biofilm growing on the rocks and in the sand. When kept in an aquarium, its diet should contain plenty of algae, phytoplankton, and other greens such as spinach and lettuce.
The ideal parameters include warm water (78-82°F), slightly alkaline to alkaline pH (7.8-8.6), and hardness between 10-18 dGH. The pindani cichlid is quite peaceful for a mbuna. In an aquarium setting, the males are just a little territorial and prefer swimming close to hiding spots.
Other than that, they don’t act aggressively towards other tankmates. This species grows up to 2.6-3.2 inches at most and males and females are monomorphic. Both have a fully blue body, with just a thin dark margin on the dorsal, anal, and tail fins.
15. Rusty Cichlid (Iodotropheus sprengerae)
And finally, we have what some might call a “classic”. The rusty cichlid was among the earliest mbuna species to make it into the aquarium trade. This mbuna naturally inhabits the sediment-free rocky habitat around the Boadzulu, Chinyankwazi, and Chinyamwezi Island regions of Lake Malawi.
This cichlid is considered an omnivore but eats a primarily herbivorous diet. Its diet in the wild focuses mostly on small algae and other biofilm growing on rocks in its habitat. In captivity, they’ll eat whatever food you offer them. But a meat-heavy diet can cause them short and long-term digestive problems.
The same water parameters apply here. Like most mbunas, rusty cichlids need a water temperature around 78-82°F, a pH around 7.8-8.6, and a hardness level around 10-18 dGH. Rusty cichlids are among the mildest mbunas. While they aren’t completely peaceful, they aren’t as feisty as other species.
In fact, this mbuna might even be bullied by other more aggressive fish in the tank. Make sure to create plenty of hiding spots to keep rusty cichlids safe. This species grows up to 4.3 inches long. They’re large enough to be kept around most popular fish species.
Rusty mbunas make a nice addition to a community tank due to their interesting colors. Males sport a beautiful combo of deep orange and lavender. Females have paler, more muted colors, sometimes closer to a reddish-brown.
All mbunas have roughly the same ideal water parameters. These are hardy, tropical fish. So you’ll need a warm, hard water aquarium with a slightly alkaline pH. Other than that, there’s quite a bit of variation. Most mbunas are true omnivores. But some prefer carnivorous diets, while others are herbivores.
Most mbunas are aggressive, but I’ve tried only picking the most manageable species. There are also a few peaceful mbunas to choose from. And finally, whether you like dark, golden, blue, violet, orange, or splotched fish, mbunas offer an endless range of colors, shades, and patterns for a bright and beautiful aquarium.