Malawi Cichlid Haps

Facts About Haplochromis and Utaka Cichlids

Family: Cichlidae Malawi Cichlid Haps, Venustus or Giraffe HapVenustus - Giraffe HapNimbochromis venustusPhoto © Animal-World: Courtesy David Brough

Malawi Cichlids known as "Haps" are the most colorful of fishes in the world !

The beautiful Malawi Cichlid Haps often display bright colors, iridescents, or striking patterns. Many are only surpassed in beauty by the most magnificent specimens of marine tropical fishes.

The Haplochromis group is the largest group in the Cichlidae family, with 213 described species as of 2007. Many of the species of this group are endemic to Lake Malawi. Cichlids from this group are generally larger than the Mbuna cichlids and many species, like the spectacular Peacock Cichlids, are also more peaceful.

Cichlids from Lake Malawi are quite active, display complex behaviors, and with the right environment many can be bred in captivity. The Malawi Cichlids give aquarists a beautiful showpiece and a delightful experience, making them some of the most popular freshwater fish to keep.

With this vast quantity of species and a variety of habitats in Lake Malaw, there is much diversity in the cichlids. Malawi Cichlids include the energetic rock-dwelling cichlids from the Mbuna group, like the popular Zebra Cichlids. But many of the Malawi Cichlids are from the Haplochromis group, often referred to as Haps or Haplochromis cichlids in the aquarium hobby. These cichlids inhabit both sandy areas and open waters.

Most of the more peaceful species should not be housed with Mbuna Cichlids. However the Utaka Cichlids from this group can be housed with less aggressive Mbuna species as long as there is an abundance of space.

To learn more about all types of African Cichlids, see:
African Cichlids - Fish Information and Cichlid Care for African Cichlids

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Malawi Cichlid Habitats

Lake Malawi, along with Lake Tanganyika, is one of the two great rift lakes in Eastern Africa. These lakes formed millions of years ago as the result of tectonic plates shifting. This created a long tear in the earth's crust, which then filled with water to form these massive, deep sea-sized lakes.

The waters of Lake Malawi are known for clarity and stability as far as pH and other water chemistries. This is the result of streams feeding into Lake Malawi having a high in mineral content, which along with evaporations resulted in alkaline water that is highly mineralized.

There is estimated to be over 800 species of cichlids from Lake Malawi, with about 300 species currently named. The regions in Lake Malawi that these cichlids inhabit include rocky areas, sandy areas, midwater areas, or they can be a combination of two or all three of these types. There is a much larger population in of Haplochromis cichlids than there are of the rock-dwelling Mbuna cichlids because they are not bound to isolated rocky regions.

Cichlid Types

Haplochromis are often referred to as "haps" or "happies" in the aquarium industry. Whether Haplochromis is a genus or not is an ongoing debate by the experts, but the term Haplochromis group is used to refer to Lake Malawi cichlids that are free-roaming browsers.

This group includes the type genus (Haplochromis) plus a number of closely related genera such as the beautiful Peacock Cichlids Aulonocara, the Utaka Cichlids (so called by the African fishermen), and other non-mbuna's.

Included here are various types of Malawi cichlids from the Haplochromis group, with the exception of the Peacocks. Please see them here: Malawi Peacock Cichlids. For the Mbuna group see Malawi Zebra Cichlids.

Haps and non-Mbuna

When you first obtain specimens from the haplochromis group, they will probably be unspectacular. You will have to wait for them to mature to see their true colors and determine sex. Juveniles haplochromis cichlids are usually silver or gray colored, and some species will have very bland egg spots. With their free-swimming nature, this bland coloration helps then to avoid predation until they reach adulthood.

As adults they are sexually dimorphic with males becoming very colorful and females remaining bland. There are many beautiful fish in this group, but a number of species are plainer colored. Some species readily available to the hobbyist include the Blue Moorii, Electric Blue Hap, and the Malawi Eyebiter.

Utaka Cichlids

Utaka Cichlids are those of the genera Copadichromis, Nimbochromis, and Protomelas. Many of these species are also often plain in color or striped. Some Utaka Cichlids are also quite large and not really suitable for the home aquarium, so only a few of these are found in the hobby. But a few smaller Utaka are especially gorgeous and often available to the aquarist.

One of the most popular Utaka cichlids from the Protomelas genus is the Red Empress P. taeniolatus. Other favorites are from the from the Copadichromis genus like the beautiful Metallic Blue Cichlid C. azureus, the highly variable C. borleyi that has a beautiful color morph, the Red Fin Kadang, with a deep crimson fin coloration, and C. chrysonotus with a deep blue breeding male.

African Cichlid Tanks

Many of the cichlids in the Haplochromis group have an average size of 4-7” (10-18 cm), so need a much larger aquarium than the small rock-dwelling Mbuna group. A minimum size suggested for these fish is 50 gallons, with 100 gallons being better. However if you wish to maintain the very large species, an aquarium of at least 250 gallons (946L) or more will be required. A good rule of thumb is approximately ½ “ (12 mm) of fish per gallon (4 L).

All Malawi Cichlids are naturally aggressive fish, and when placed in the confines of an aquarium you may see an increase in aggressive behavior. This is especially true if the aquarium is too small, and if there is inadequate places of refuge to avoid an aggressor. Planning ahead can help avoid problems of predation, aggressive incompatibility, and even hybridization.

  • Sand and Rock-dwelling
    For sand and rock dwelling species, a wide aquarium providing a lot of bottom space for sand and a rock structure will help make these cichlids feel more at home. For the open swimming species, a taller tank is recommended with more open space.

    These free-swimming fish naturally spend their time in the water column. With the exception of the peaceful Peacock Cichlids, these cichlids can be kept with less aggressive members of the Mbuna group as long as there is plenty of room.
  • Sand-dwelling and Open-swimmers
    Sand dwelling species and open swimmers will both appreciate a substrate layer of fine silica sand with smooth rocks strategically place to provide territorial boundaries. More rocks for sand dwellers and only a few for open swimmers. If you include rock-dwelling cichlids, then you will want more rockwork with multiple caves and passageways.

Many of these free-swimming cichlids will form schools in nature, swimming in the water column to feed on plankton. Lake Malawi cichlids are polygamous, with a male courting several females. Keeping one or two males with a number of females will encourage the formation of schools in the aquarium. If you wish to keep different species together, it also helps to select species that look very different from each other to reduce hybridization.

Other than the need for more open space, the care and maintenance of the Haplochromis cichlids is similar to that of the rock-dwelling Mbunas. Feed frozen or live brine shrimp, mysis, high quality flake, pellets, spirulina, and other preparations for omnivore cichlids. It is always better to feed them small amounts several times a day instead of one large feeding.

See each individual species for in-depth information along with specific care and feeding requirements.