The dynamic Zebra Cichlids are some of the most popular cichlids from Lake Malawi!

The Zebra Cichlids, also known as the Mbuna Cichlids, are endemic to Lake Malawi. This is a popular group of very active and aggressive personalities, made up of 12 genera and many species.The Mbuna group are attractive rock dwelling cichlids. The African word “mbuna” means “rockfish”.

The best known of the Mbuna group are the Zebra Cichlids. Previously all Mbuna Cichlids were members of the Pseudotropheus genus, but recently many have been moved to their own genera. Today, Zebra Cichlids are comprised of Pseudotropheus, Maylandia, and Tropheops genera. These popular rock-dwelling cichlids make a wonderful attraction in a large community tank.

There are lots of other Mbuna species and a wide variety of color morphs as well, contained in 9 separate genera. Many of these rock-dwelling species are beautiful cichlids displaying bright colors or striking patterns. As a general rule, Mbuna males are blue and females are yellow, but they are often colored in blues with black bars and yellows.

All members of the Mbuna group are not only pretty, but are also very intriguing. They are quite active and display remarkable behaviors. An aquarium with a backdrop of rocks and caves, combined with the complex behaviors of a colorful Mbuna community, makes for a lively fascinating display.

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

Mbuna Cichlid Habitats

All Mbuna Cichlids are endemic to Lake Malawi, one of the two great African rift lakes. The great lakes of Africa formed over millions of years along a separation in the earths crust. Two great valleys filled with water, but never connected. These created the two great African rift lakes along with a number of other lakes and ponds.

In the north lies the long and deep rift lake, Lake Tanganyika. To the south lies Lake Malawi, called Lake Nyassa in colonial days, which is the other great rift lake. Between the two valleys lies the shallower, saucer-shaped great lake, Lake Victoria.

The rock-dwelling Mbuna Cichlids, like the description implies, inhabit the rocky shores of the great Malawi lake. They aggregate around tiny islands or isolated rocky outcrops in a sandy beach. Mbuna live among and around the rocks for protection, spawning under them and in cave formations. They feed by scraping off algae, growing on the rocks, which also contains various insects and crustaceans.

Types of Mbuna

The Mbuna group consists of 12 genera including Cyathochromis, Cynotilapia, Genyochromis, Gephyrochromis, Iodotropheus, Labeotropheus, Labidochromis, Melanochromis, Maylandia / Metriaclima, Petrotilapia, Pseudotropheus, and Tropheops.

The Zebra Cichlids are a group of some of the most popular of the rock-dwelling Mbuna. Previously Zebra Cichlids consisted of related species all contained within the genus Pseudotropheus, which means “false Tropheus”. However a number of related fish have recently been re-assigned to different genera including Tropheops and Maylandia / Metriaclima, to help in the naming of long known but un-described members. In conjunction with Fishbase and the IUCN, Maylandia is the genus name we use here.

Below are some of the better known Zebra Cichlids and other Mbuna Cichlids.To learn about other cichlids from the Lake Malawi, see Malawi Peacock Cichlids and Malawi Cichlids – Haplochromis Group, Haps and Utaka Cichlids.

Zebra Cichlids

Some well-known Zebra Cichlids include:

Other Mbuna Cichlids

Other well-known Mbuna Cichlids include:

Mbuna Cichlid Aquarium

Zebra Cichlids are very hardy fish, and can live up to about 10 years in captivity. They are relatively aggressive and are best housed with other Mbuna species or other African cichlids of similar size and personality. Don’t house them with the more peaceful Lake Malawi species like the Peacock Cichlids or other less aggressive cichlids.

A look at the life of these rock-dwelling cichlids in the wild helps to understand why Zebra Cichlids and other Mbuna Cichlids make such excellent aquarium fish:

  1. Natural Habitat
    In their native habitat, the Mbuna’s live in self-contained microcosms within the gigantic lake. They live completely independent and separated, aggregating around a tiny island or isolated rocky outcrop in a sandy beach. They will generally not swim even 50 yards across open water to another area, yet they will readily hybridize with each male defending his own small territory, and the female moving out. This has led to a wonderful variety of species and color forms.
  2. Breeding
    Each Mbuna ‘family’ will generally consist of a male and several females. Breeding males will select a small piece of territory and defend it fiercely. But the male will usually want to continue breeding even after the female has had enough and is ready to lay eggs. A female needs plenty of room to evade the male, and will often leave his territory to establish a nest.
  3. Feeding
    Zebra Cichlids and other Mbuna’s are gregarious with many members in each habitat. This is because they are primarily herbivores, so their food source is very abundant and easily supports many fish.
    Most of their food supply is a dense felt-like mass of algae growing on the rocks that has bacteria, insects, and tiny crustaceans living within. Hobbyists refer to this type of algae as aufwuchs, a German word for salad and seafood. Some Mbuna diverge a bit and may also consume other aquatic vegetation, and will sometimes feed on small planktonic animals in the water current, primarily calanoid copepods.

It’s a combination of these factors that make them an excellent choice for a community aquarium. But a community must have a large tank with plenty of caves and rockwork. A minimum size for a community is 30 gallons, and larger is better. Mbuna Cichlids can be crowded to a certain extent, as long as there is adequate rockwork for males to establish territories and plenty of room for females and others to evade these defenders. It also helps to keep a high population of fish to help distribute aggression.

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