Within the freshwater aquarium hobby, you’ll often hear fish enthusiasts refer to “mbuna” cichlid fish. This popular term, meaning “rockfish” in the language of Malawi’s Tonga people, describes a very diverse group of fish in the family Cichlidae. Mbuna cichlids are my personal favorites among all groups of freshwater fish, although they can be harder to care for than less-demanding types of freshwater fish, such as livebearers and cyprinids. Mbuna cichlids can be temperamental and territorial, and characteristically dwell in rocky shores and underwater caves, so it’s not always easy to create an appropriate tank set-up. If you’re planning to set up an aquarium for mbuna cichlids, here are some tips to follow that have helped me set up a great habitat for these beautiful animals.
A small aquarium is not appropriate for any type of mbuna cichlid, since they are very territorial by nature and will fight to the death in inadequately sized tanks. Although it may be possible to house some small species of mbuna in a well-tended 20-gallon aquarium, they should never be kept in a tank any smaller than that. Ideally, start with a 55-gallon or larger tank. “Vertical” tanks with little floor space aren’t appropriate for mbuna cichlids; choose a tank with a broad bottom.
Sand or gravel filtration is best for mbuna cichlids. Bear in mind that they have a habit of digging (part of their natural nest-building and territory-building instinct) so some forms of substrate may be inappropriate. Some other great choices include crushed coral and limestone, but since these may affect water chemistry, it’s best to use them only if you are an experienced aquarist and can carefully manage your water parameters and mineral content.
Mbuna cichlids characteristically need a tank set-up with plenty of rocks and caves. One popular option is to use clay flower pots with holes drilled in them to create interesting caves. However, this may not meet every mbuna keeper’s aesthetic preferences. Many prefer to create more natural-looking caves with lava rock or other aquarium-friendly stones. Live plants can be a great decoration but may not withstand the rigors of cichlid aggression, digging, and nibbling. Java fern might be an appropriate addition to some mbuna cichlid tank set-ups, since it’s left uneaten and tends to remain hardy in disturbed substrate.
Water in an mbuna cichlid tank set-up needs to remain at a warm tropical temperature between 77 and 85 degrees Fahrenheit to emulate the natural climate of the African freshwater lakes where the fish originate. Mbuna cichlids usually prefer slightly alkaline water with a pH between 7.5 and 8.4, with dissolved minerals of sodium, magnesium, calcium and potassium (as found naturally in Lake Malawi, where most popular mbuna cichlids come from. (Specialized aquarium additives can meet these needs.) The tank’s nitrate and nitrite levels should be as close to undetectable as possible at any given time.
With an adequately large and appropriately decorated aquarium, mbuna cichlids can thrive, but a poor tank set-up for mbuna cichlids can lead to poor water parameters, excessive aggression, stunted growth, polluted water, and sudden unexplained deaths. However, with a good tank-set up, mbuna cichlids can thrive and bring vibrancy and a splash of color to any home.