The Miracle (or Madness) of Mixing Mbunas

Posted by Aquatropic Staff on April 20, 2023

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One of the most beautiful (and in our opinion, underrated) tanks in your Local Fish Store is the Mixed African Cichlid tank. Therein lies an astounding blend of vibrant colors and wild activity, pretty much unrivaled in any other display in the store. This aquarium was the inspiration for getting into the aquarium hobby for multiple biologists on staff here, launching both a lifetime love of aquariums and in some cases, careers spanning the globe. So, what is in that display, and how do we set up an appropriate aquarium for those fish at home? Let's dig in!

We'd like to start by saying that single species cichlid tanks are a fascinating and underrated display, and much less prone to problems than mixing species. However, if you are on the mixed path, you should start some internet searches and once you start googling things like “what kind of cichlids can I keep together” you're going to enter a horrible world of conflicting advice, vague truisms and a lot of answers like “do your own research.” This is totally unhelpful, and somewhat discouraging. The reason for this is that there is a huge variety of cichlids, and these come from multiple continents. Even within single continents they come from a variety of sources, and the lakes and rivers they come from can be quite different in regards to habitat types and water parameters. Adding to this confusion is that some of the most popular of these fish come from the African Rift lakes (the fish we are focusing on today) and within each lake themselves there are habitats that are completely separated and fish from one habitat will usually not cohabit with others. African Cichlids are aggressive as a general rule and so when problems arise, they can be serious. Lastly, and importantly, there just aren't rules that work 100% of the time here; individual fish can have “personalities” and thus one rogue individual can take a good mix of fish and turn it into a huge mess. If you have one of these bullies, you'll need to remove it and either find it a home alone, or see if your LFS wants it back.

So the truth is that the mixed tank you see is usually generally a couple / few species, though some larger displays can have a huge selection of different peacocks and haps. Frequently, these displays are male only, which lowers the aggression level because there isn't anything to fight over. They are also generally slightly overstocked which means that the aggression that arises is usually distributed across the entire population. Never understock a cichlid tank, you can toss the normal stocking recommendation of one inch per gallon out. We see stocking density recommendations that are all over the place, but these best ones, in our experience, are based on space. Think four or so juvenile fish per square foot. A 75 gallon tank is four feet by one and a half feet which equals six square feet which would be 24 juvenile fish. They are probably going to breed and so you'll have more at some point. A mixed cichlid display is often in flux numbers wise.

Since you're just digging into this topic, we're going to cut a few corners here. If you really want to deep dive into the fish geek side of mixing African Cichlids, we suggest starting by dividing fish from where they came from, what foods they eat, and importantly, whether they mouth brood (carry eggs and live babies in their mouths) or substrate spawn (make a nest and lay eggs in it). If you just want a mix of cool cichlids, we suggest sticking to mouthbrooders as they do not have a nest do defend and do not form pairs for breeding. You'll want these fish to come from similar habitats (and the same lake) and have similar dietary needs as feeding specific fish each a specific food is going to be pretty much impossible.

As you read about cichlids, you're going to come across the term “Mbuna” that this basically means “rock-dwelling”. They are (on average) an aggressive group that doesn't necessarily play nicely with other Cichlids, even other aggressive ones. The flip side of this is that many of them can be kept with their own kind. For this reason, they are our first suggestion on the easy path to keeping a group of mixed African Cichlids. Having fish from the same lake and same habitat means they speak the same language, (in a manner of speaking). They will recognize the behaviors of the other fish and respond how they should. A fish that doesn't know how much room another spawning male needs is likely to react in a way that triggers more aggression.

You'll frequently see Mixed Mbuna or Mixed Malawi Mbuna as a tag on a group of cichlids in your Local Fish Store and this is a great place to start this adventure. Frequently these tanks will be mixed in species, but will often have Labidochromis caeruleus (Yellow Lab), Pseudotropheus acei (Yellow Tail Acei), Pseudotropheus elongatus (Elongate or Elongatus Mbuna), Labeotropheus trewavasae (Trewavas or Scrapermouth) and less frequently some others like Metriaclima estherae (Red Zebra) and quite often these tanks will be full of hybrids from these species as most of them are capable of breeding with each other and the offspring of them is no longer discernible as individual species. If you're interested in mixing other species than this, it gets a lot trickier. The Labidochromis caeruleus is a good place to start as they are among the lesser aggressive of the Mbunas and have been mixed successfully with some other species like Pseudotropheus sp. (Red Top Ndumbi), Cichla ocellaris (Peacocks), and Andinoacara pulcher (Blue Acaras). This is not an exhaustive list, just a starting place.

We suggest picking a mix of fish from this single tank that are all pretty close to the same size and adding these fish to your display at the same time. Adding fish of a different size, or at different times is inviting aggression that you won't be able to solve. Fish that are much bigger will be more dangerous to smaller fish, and adding smaller fish makes them a target for your established social heirarchy. There aren't too many non-cichlid fish that mix well with Mbunas, though we've had good luck with keeping them with common Plecostomus for clean up duty.

Now what about the display for these fish? This tank should be at least four feet long, and we suggest 75 gallons at this length. The 90 gallon that is four feet long just adds height to the display and this is of limited benefit and use. More footprint will give your cichlids more room to escape each other, so we suggest going up to 110 or 125 in a five foot length if you want to go bigger. These fish all come from rocky areas (remember Mbuna = rock dweller), and so the rock work should be substantial, offering as many caves and swim through opportunities as possible. An excellent assortment of appropriate rocks are available for you to check out on our site, and for purchase through our retail partners. A large or mixed grain sand is an appropriate substrate. Super fine sands will look nice, but will get suspended a lot as fish move it around. Crushed shells and coral gravel can help you maintain the elevated pH that Malawi Cichlids prefer. Make sure the rockwork is stable.

In regards to water quality, (and as just referenced) these fish like an elevated pH, at or very near 8. Standard tropical water temperatures around 75-80 are good and they like hard, but not crazy hard water, somewhere in the GH 8 range. Nearly all of the Mixed Mbuna cichlids you see now days are aquacultured and so over time the exact readings of these water quality measurements is less important than it once was, but you should be in this general vicinity, as it will result in fish that are healthier, more vibrant and more active. Filtration should be aggressive and water changes should be regularly executed. As you'll be overcrowding this tank, it is vital that you take steps to ensure the water quality remains stable and clean. We suggest a filter (or better yet filters) that will overturn the entire volume of your display tank at least 20 times per hour. If you've gone for a 125 gallon display (which is going to be EPIC) this means filters that can handle 500 gph.

There are many, many other ways to keep cichlids, and hundreds of other cichlids to keep, and we'll dive into these in the future. However, if you want to get started keeping African Rift Lake cichlids in a mixed environment, these are good guidelines to start from. If you want to veer off these guidelines too much, spend a lot of time researching, check out forums and faqs on sites like You don't need to be an active presence there, but they contain a wealth of knowledge and experience for you to tap into just by reading. Also lean on the experience of the professionals in your LFS (local fish store), they are one of your best sources of knowledge and also of excellent quality fish from us here at Aquatropic! Stop in there and tell them we sent you today!