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Setting Up the Perfect Mbuna Environment
by Jason Hampshire (aka jas the ace)


There are many ways to set up a GOOD Mbuna environment. In this article I will explain what it takes to have a good Mbuna environment by covering sevearl subjects: water quality, aquarium size, filtration, the number of fish to keep, equipment, and aquarium maintenance.

WATER QUALITY:

When preparing an Mbuna aquarium you will need to obtain their water requirements which in turn will need YOU too understand THEM and there behavior. People think that never go near the cichlids there too hard too keep well thats what I used to think. But in fact the needs of these fish are not complicated at all, but I must admit it is a bit different to the fishs requirements youre properly used to keeping.

The fish generally need hard alkaline water. If you are lucky enough to have hard, alkaline water, like myself, you do not need to add any buffers. If your water tests below 7.6 pH, I recommend using buffers to raise your alkalinity. Using buffers is easy and should not discourage you from keeping mbuna if your water is not already alkaline.

You can buy pre-prepared Malawi salt mixes, which are available at any good LFS (local fish store). These salts are added every time you change the water of you aquarium, which should be as frequent as once a week.

Putting limestone or crushed coral in your Mbuna aquarium is fine. They will raise the pH and carbonate hardness and reverse biological activity.

This biological activity, including fish metabolism and waste decomposition, does a lot more than just acidify the aquarium. This activity produces ammonia, which is a natural by product of your aquatic friends metabolism which like ours very toxic when not cleaned. When the aquarium has a proper biological filter the ammonia is taken up by bacteria that convert it to nitrites which are slightly less toxic to the fish. Then other bacteria take up the nitrites and change it into nitrates which are even less harmful. To keep ammonia levels down, frequent water changes are a MUST.

AQUARIUM SIZE:

Mbuna as we know them are nasty while colorful fish. This pugnacious behavior prevents us from keeping them in some of the smaller aquarium sizes. The best size aquarium to house mbuna is 70-90 gallons but the absolute smallest is 55 gallons. Because of there beautiful colors they make an excellent show room tank when in a 90 gallon tank. Positioning of such a tank is an important factor to think about when setting up a show room tank. Another factor to think about is the weight of the tank, and what the tank is on. You can buy pre-made stands, wooden or metal. In my opinion, the best are custom made. If you buy a home-built stand, be aware that the quality may not be as good.

FILTRATION:

This is one of the hardest subjects to understand and will take anyone a long time to grasp the facts of filtration.

There are many different biological filters that work well for a mbuna setup, but I discourage the use of under gravel filters (UGF). For one, UGF are in the way of the Mbunas digging. Even though they seek out ready made homes, mbuna like to dig and rearrange the aquarium to suit themselves. Some of them are very good at it too. After every water change, my auratus excavates all the rocks that fall below into his cave. When he was little, he would do it rock-by-rock but now he brings out about 5 at a time and spits them to make a little hill at the front and back entrances. Because mbuna like to dig, they will constantly uncover the filter, rendering it ineffective. This can be ruled out in a number of ways.

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This isnt the only bad thing about having a UGF filter with cichlids. As I have already stated the cichlids create huge amounts of waste and a UGF uses the rocks as filter materials. Also they won't keep a strong enough flow rate for these cichlids. I am not saying keeping cichlids with a UGF is impossible, but you would have to perform more frequent water changes than otherwise. There are many filters such as trickle filters, bio wheel filters, or fluidized bed filters which concentrate on maximizing the surface area and water flow. If you are comfortable and have a background with denitrators, either bacterial or electronic, they can of course be used on a Mbuna aquarium. Both power filters and canister filters can be used for mechanical and chemical filtration in Mbuna setups.

A high flow rate through your filter is necessary. A minimum of 3 to five times the total gallonage of your tank should be turned over every hour. For example a 55 gallon would need a filter that turns 275 gallons an hour.

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The cost of these filters can be pricey. It is also a good idea to have two filters in case one breaks down. Water quality can deteriorate very quickly without a filter.

Aeration is important. I rely on a powerful filter to oxygenate my water. The waves at lake Malawi have been known to reach a whopping 15 feet high! And I have noticed in my aquarium they swim against the current. When I first got my little electric yellows (Labidochromis caeruleus) they were holding up against a fierce current!

HOW MANY FISH?:

How many fish can I keep in an aquarium is one of the most frequently asked questions. The fish were small and young ONCE and the tank looked much bigger then, but the more fish you have, the LESS aggression there is. This is because aggressors tend not to single out any one fish without sorting out another; therefore, their aggression is distributed among several fish instead of one or two. In my 55 gallon tank I have one Cyrtocara moorii, who is the dominant fish of the tank along with a auratus. They often try to boss everyone around but seeing so many fish they don't single out one fish.

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Breeding males are exceedingly territorial as are females when defending territory. This creates for some lively action. You want to be able to strike a balance in these fishess dominance levels. You shouldnt place a rusty cichlid (Iodotropheus sprengerae) and mix it with a dominant male Melanochromis johanni, even if the johanni wasnt dominant. The rusty cichlid is very docile and a great fish for beginners whilethe johanni is a terror to behold. Although a Melanochromis auratus and a johanni are evenly tempered, a lot of fighting for dominance and territory will ensue, so a large aquarium is advised.

To set up a good aquarium for Mbuna it should consist of lots of rocky caves and algae growth on the rocks. Mbuna will happily graze on the alge. Plants are optional but give the aquarium a natural feeling and provide for additional hiding places. Here is a list of compatible plants:

Plants for the Mbuna Aquarium:
  • Dwarf Anubias (Anubias nana)
  • Afzeli Anubias (Anubias afzeli)
  • Giant Anubias (Anubias Barteri)
  • Coffee leaf anubias (Anubias barteri coffefolia)
  • Tape grass (Valissneria spirals)
  • Java fern (Microsorium pteropus)

Despite some aquarists' bad luck, there are plants you can keep without your mbuna ripping them up. The same rule applies with plants as it does with aggression: the more you have, the less the damage.

I strongly recommend keeping more females than males. For every one male, two or even three females is a good rule of thumb. By having several females per male, the aggression is once again spread out.

So in summary, I say ROCKS, ROCKS, ROCKS and FISH, FISH, FISH. The more fish, the better. Also keep in mind the aggressive and territorial behaviors of these fishes when selecting the number and sex ratios of fish as well as the size aquarium you will buy.

OTHER EQUIPMENT:

The Mbuna aquarium will require the same equipment as normal tropical tanks. Heaters, gravel, vacuums, and numerous test kits (see Aquarium Test Kits for more detail). Some beginners don't give much thought to lighting because they incorrectly believe they can't keep plants with mbuna. Most of the plants I have listed only require a low level of light intensity, but still, don't forget about lighting.

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I am no lighting expert so dont ask me, but if you do want to forget about plants leave the light on for 12 hours a day,algae growth should start rapidly, but keep an eye on the algae growth. It can get out of hand in no time!

The Mbuna will take up jumping for fun so a tight heavy glass is advised. If you have a filter you can always drill or cut holes in the glass to make a place for wires and other things to go inside the tank.

REGULAR AQUARIUM MAINTENANCE:

Water changes are not optional in a Mbuna aquarium (or any aquarium). I have a 55 gallon tank (198 liters). I do a 30% water change once a week. My filter is rated for 1100 liters/hour (289 gallons/hour), so I am turning the water 5.5 times an hour. In addition to water changes, there are other maintenance task involved in keeping mbuna. To scub the glass, I use a scratchless sponge, which has proven more effective than a cloth at removing the algae from the glass.

Cleaning the filter: the filter material should NEVER be cleaned in tap water. Always use tank water because the chlorine in tap water will shock and kill the bacteria. This practice will keep your precious bacteria intact and healthy. If the bacteria are killed, the aquarium will experience an ammonia spike, which will shock and stress your fishes.

To make your Mbuna feel even more comfortale in your aquarium, you can also rearrange the rocks and other decorations every few months. This will give the non-dominant fish a chance to grab a cave or even the place of leadership in the tank.

Please contact me if you have any troubles.
 
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