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Haps Vs. Mbuna
by Marc Elieson

This article compares the differences between these two popular Lake Malawi Cichlid groups: the Mbuna (pronounced "um-boo-na") and the Haps.

Lake MalawiLake Malawi contains a greater variety of indigenous species of Cichlid fishes than any other lake in the world. World Wildlife Fund researchers have identified over 500 species to date that are not found anywhere else in the world. That is more than all of the freshwater species found in all the waters of both Europe and North America. Among aquarists, the two most popular groups of these fishes are the Haps and the Mbuna.

In this article we will explore the differences between these two groups in an effort to help aquarists in their selection of tank mates. Before we do this, however, let’s take a quick look at Lake Malawi itself.

Lake Malawi's pH ranges from 7.8 to 8.6, with a total hardness of 4.0-6.0 dH. The reason for the variation is caused by the level of Carbon Dioxide dissolved in the water. In areas with turbulent water, where the water is better aerated, the pH is higher, while in calm bays, the level of dissolved Carbon Dioxide is higher; consequently, the pH is lower there. Surface temperature ranges from 76 to 85 degrees, while the temperature at lower levels of the lake remain at a constant 70 degrees. Carbonate hardness ranges from 6.0 to 8.0.

Lake MalawiAbout one third of the coast is rocky, which is home to the mbunas. The remaining shoreline is characterized by sandy beaches and bottoms. This is where most of the open-water Haps and peacocks dwell. A few Cichlid species inhabit the muddy and weed-strewn bottom where larger rivers flow into the lake. The shores of the lake are generally sandy. Lake Malawi is unusual in that it does not have tides or currents. Most fish are contained to 300 feet, because the water is stagnate below that point, and there is no oxygen.

The Haps

Haps, for want of a better name, are basically a non-Mbuna flock that are informally called “Haps” because many of these fish once belonged to the broad genus Haplochromis Hilgendorf. There are a total of eighteen genera that belong to this informal group of Cichlids.

Most Haps are piscivores, which means they prey on small fish, particularly other small Cichlids. There are some exceptions to this generalization, however, but these will do well on a piscovore's diet nonetheless. Because of their dietary needs, and consequently, behavior, it’s not a good idea to house these predators with anything small enough to swallow.

Nimbochromis venustus Cyrtocara moorii

Most Haps are only moderately aggressive. They live away from the rocks and cruise the open water alone, and are seldom seen in groups. Haps have long, slender, almost torpedo-like bodies, which allows them to suddenly burst into speed. This suits their predatory behavior. Most of these fish are silver or gray when small, and the males become very brightly colored as they mature. Females typically remain without color.

Haps have developed some very unique hunting adaptations, which makes them fun to watch. At least two of the Nimbochromis species (venustus and livingstoni) lure small fish within range by feigning death and lying motionless in the sand. Dimidiochromis compressiceps, whose name is derived from its compressed body, uses its extremely narrow body to its advantage in ambushing prey. It hunts with its head angled downward, and its narrow body outline toward its prey so as to minimize its visibility. The Copadichromis species, also known as "Utaka," are zooplankton eaters and have developed a protrusible mouth that shoots forward to form a tube. This causes negative pressure in the mouth, which pulls the plankton in, like a vacuum.

The chart below presents some general information that is needed when considering which of these species to house in your aquarium. Large Haps should not be kept in anything less than 75 gallons, and extra-large should have at least 100 gallons to explore. Medium-sized Haps can handle 55+, with the exception of S. fryerei, which is extremely aggressive. This fish should not be kept in anything less than 75 gallons.

Sciaenochromis fryeri Protomelas taeniolatus

Haps are polygamous mouthbrooders, which means that dominant males maintain harems of females. They exhibit no parental care; after spawning, the male moves on to find another female. Females will incubate fertilized eggs in their mouths until the fry are completely developed, at which time they spit the fry into the rocks where they fend for themselves. For mouthbrooders, Haps have much larger broods. D. compressiceps, for example, has broods numbering 250!

A reminder: these are warm-water fish and so their water should be maintained between 76 and 82 degrees F, with a pH between 7.8 and 8.6.

GENUS SIZE DIET AGGRESSION
     Aristochromis L Predator 3
     Buccochromis XL Predator 3
     Champsochromis XL Predator 2
     Chilotilapia ML Omnivore 2
     Copadichromis M Plankton 5
     Cyrtocara L Micro-Predator 4
     Dimidiochromis L Predator 5
     Exochochromis XL Predator 4
     Fossorochromis L Micro-Predator 2
     Maravichomis ML Omnivore 2
     Nimbochromis L Predator 1
     Nyassachromis S Predator 5
     Otopharynx S Micro-Predator 5
     Placidochromis ML Micro-Predator 4
     Protomelas ML Micro-Predator 3
     Sciaenochromis ML Predator 3
     Taeniochromis L Predator 2
     Tyrannochromis L Predator 2
Aggression: 1 being extremely aggressive, 5 being very peaceful.

 

The Mbuna

The “Mbuna” (i.e., rock-dwelling fish) are a large group of Cichlids that live among large piles of rocks along the shoreline. They are usually seen in large groups, but are by no means a schooling fish. In some areas of Lake Malawi, 20 fish per square meter is not uncommon. Mbunas are known for their very colorful patterns and short stocky bodies.

In contrast to Haps, both sexes of the more than 100 species of Mbuna are unusually colorful, whereas typically, only a single dominant male of a species displays any color. Mbuna are smaller and tend to have flat faces, which enables them to better scrape algae from rocks. They display colorful, bright patterns of horizontal stripes or vertical bars. The smaller mbuna species will grow to a maximum of about 3", and the largest species will grow to about 8", but most Mbunas grow to be between 4" and 5" long.

Melanochromis joanjohnsonae Labidochromis caeruleus

They often begin breeding after they’re a year old and have grown to about 3". Males tend to get a little larger than females and often display slightly brighter colors. Mbunas’ have a life span of between 7 and 10 years.

Mbuna, on the whole, are a lot more aggressive than Haps. Although aggressive, they do have a distinct social structure. The aggression is most often directed toward con-specifics (i.e., fish with a similar look). Because a certain fish appears similar, whether it be body shape or coloring, this fish is seen as a threat for food and mating. If the fish is of the same species or closely related, it will then compete for the same types of food or reproduce with the same females.

The dominant male will display the brightest colors, and will usually not permit subdominant males to mate with any females of the same species in the tank. In certain species, less dominant males actually acquire female coloration in order to avoid confrontations with the dominant male. In all-female groups, many times a dominant female will acquire male coloration.

There are ways to ameliorate this aggression. Periodic small feedings can help curb aggression in Mbuna. Crowding is another trick all Mbuna-keepers employ. While it does not directly put an end to aggression, it does ease its effects. With more tank mates, the aggression of a dominant male is distributed among several fish, not just one or two. It is important to have at least a 2 to 1 ratio of females to males. A long tank with lots of hiding places gives subdominant fish a chance to get away. If you crowd your tank, as I recommend, it will be imperative that you "over-filter" your tank, providing heavy biological filtration, lots of water movement, and frequent water changes.

Another technique is to avoid putting together fish with similar coloring. I have found that a more dominant male of one species will domineer the male of another similarly-colored species to such a point that he will never spawn.

Mbuna have proven themselves to be among the easiest of aquarium fish to breed. They, like Haps, are polygamous mouthbrooders. Males will dig a nest in the sand or gravel, to where they attract a willing female. The male will quiver violently in front of the female, which induces her to drop the eggs on the substrate. As she goes to pick them up, the male will fertilize the eggs with his milt. Females “hold” the eggs for a period of 21-31 days, during which they eat very little to nothing. Consequently, they can get very weak; therefore, it is often a good idea to separate “holding” females from the rest of the pack. Broods usually consist of 12-28 fry, depending upon the size of the female. In general, mouthbrooders lay far fewer eggs than substrate spawners because of the size of their mouths compared to the limitless space of a nest. However, for some reason, the mouthbrooders’ eggs are typically larger than those of the substrate spawners.

Mbuna are exclusively Herbivores (with the exception of Labidochromis). They spend all day picking and scraping at the thick mat of algae that covers the rocky shoreline of Lake Malawi. This algae is their primary staple, which is supplemented with the insects and crustaceans that live in the algae. While Mbuna, officially, are vegetarians, they will eat almost anything that can fit in their mouths. Careful attention to their diet is required if you want to keep these fish healthy.

The digestional tracts of Mbuna are made for vegetable matter. They have long intestines designed to extract the proteins and carbohydrates from the hard-to-digest algae. Cows and other ungulates use several stomachs to digest grass. Mbuna, on the other hand, do it with only one stomach and a very long intestine. If you feed them too much animal protein (e.g., worms, shrimp, feeder fish), it will only be a matter of time before they develop an intestinal blockage, swell up, and die from the infamous Malawi Bloat.

While not all of the fishes of these two groups are compatabile, many can be successfully mixed if certain precautions are taken. The dietary needs of both can be usually be met with a quality staple pellet or flake. Additionally, Mbuna can be fed supplements that Haps will ignore. These include store-bought vegetables like zucchini, green peas, romaine lettuce, and spinach. These are best when smashed or sliced. Yellow squash is also a really good supplement because it will help bring out their red and yellow colors. Supplementing with vegetables will help to ensure that Mbuna get enough fiber and vegetable matter in their diet. And whatever you do, never feed these fish foods with lots of fat (e.g., black worms) and especially not fat from warm-blooded animals (e.g., beef heart).

It's also important to keep in mind the natural habitat of your fishes. For example, there are many haps that stick to rocks and crevices while others cruise the open waters. Open-water haps may not thrive in a rock-filled aquarium as these fishes tend to grow larger and may feel cramped. Rocks can also be the means for repeated injuries in these fishes. On the other hand, some rock-bound haps should not be mixed with small mbuna as the former prey on the latter. Haps and Mbuna can be mixed; just understand the needs and tendencies of each and match them accordingly.

Pseudotropheus saulosi Maylandia estherae

The Labidochromis spp. really are an exception to the strictly-vegetables diet of the Mbuna. Their diet is primarily composed of plankton and benthic invertebrates such as snails, and only supplemented by plant matter. You may notice that their teeth are quite different from the rest of the Mbuna, being more needle-like rather than spade-like. Notwithstanding, they really seem to enjoy Spirulina tablets.

The Melanochromis spp. are also another exception. While they are primarily vegetarian, they also feed on the insects and crustaceans that live within the algae more so than other Mbuna. They have also been dubbed as opportunistic feeders.

As a result of being vegetarians, Mbuna will eat most plants…and those they don’t eat quickly get dug up. If you want to try putting plants with Mbuna, there are a few species of plants that they don’t seem to like and that are well adapted to their alkaline water. These include Java Fern, Vallisneria sp., and the Anubias family: A. barteri, A. congicus, A. gigante, A. gracilis, A. heterophylla, and A. nana.

Mbuna, likes Haps, are warm-water fish and therefore require water between 76 and 82 degrees F, with a pH between 7.8 and 8.6. If done properly, these fish should also be kept in an aquarium no smaller than 60 gallons.

 

GENUS SIZE DIET AGGRESSION
     Cyahtochromis ML Vegetarian 3
     Cynotilapia S Omnivore 1-4
     Genyochromis M Piscovore 1
     Gephyrochromis ML Vegetarian 2
     Iodotropheus M Omnivore 5
     Labeotropheus L Vegetarian 2
     Labidochromis M Omnivore 4
     Metriaclima ML Vegetarian 2
     Melanochromis ML Vegetarian 2
     Petrotilapia L Vegetarian 2
     Pseudotropheus ML Vegetarian 2
Aggression: 1 being extremely aggressive, 5 being very peaceful.
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