About Lake Malawi

Lake Malawi is the home of more species of fish than any other lake in the world, including over 1000 species of cichlids.

lake malawi

Lake Malawi is one of the three rift lakes of Eastern Africa, along with Lake Tanganyika and Lake Victoria, and stretches 360 miles from north to south. It is the 9th largest lake in the world and is located between Malawi, Mozambique and Tanzania.

Many common and rare aquarium species of African cichlids call Lake Malawi home. The species relevant to the aquarium hobbyist belong to the haplochromine group.

The haplochromine group can be further divided into two main groups; the open water and sand dwelling species whose males display brilliant coloration while the females are most often silvery and the rock-dwelling mbuna where both males and females tend to be brightly colored.

Natural environment:

Learning about the natural environment will help with your aquarium set up.

The average water temperature of Lake Malawi is 77 °F, with a pH = 8.5, a general hardness (GH) around 7, and a carbonate hardness (KH) of 10-12. For the non-chemists in the room, this means the water is hard and alkaline.

Fortunately, this corresponds well with tap water around many regions of North America. If your municipal water already meets these parameters, then African cichlids from Lake Malawi may be ideal fish for you.

Don’t fret if your water is soft and acidic instead; there are multiple options to alter the water chemistry available, and it’s far simpler to increase the water hardness than to decrease it. We’ll cover this in some detail in a future post.

Lake Malawi Species

All Malawian cichlids are considered aggressive, and do not belong in a community tank. Normally, they should only be kept with other African cichlids of similar temperament, with a few notable exceptions that include some species of hardy catfish.

All Lake Malawi species are maternal mouthbrooders, which means that when breeding, the female scoops up the eggs and holds them in her mouth for several weeks – in fact until well after the fry have hatched. This makes their fry larger and more capable of surviving on their own once released.

If breeding in the aquarium, it should be noted that it’s relatively common for first time mothers to swallow the eggs if she is overstressed.

Popular Lake Malawi Cichlids


Commonly known as “Peacocks”, Auloncara come in a wide variety of species and are some of the most beautiful fish available to freshwater aquaria. Fry and juveniles are uniformly silver, and this coloration remains in the females.

Males, particularly the dominant males, develop vivid and striking colors – most often in brilliant blues, but often also with bright red or yellow present depending on the species, which is related to their geographic location in the lake.

Because all of the females essentially look the same, cross breeding of Peacocks in captivity is quite common, and in fact there are a number of “new” variants of Auloncara that are a direct result of selective breeding by hobbyists.

Auloncara are considered quite mild on the scale of aggressiveness.

Red Empress

Technically Protomelas taeniolatus, the Red Empress is a fish closely related to the Auloncara species but is a little deeper bodied.

Similar to the peacocks, only the males display their brilliant coloration, with bright red on neon blue, and these colors are most pronounced when they are attempting to breed.

They will grow to 5-6” in the aquarium, and the Red Empress also rates as mildly aggressive on the scale of African cichlids.


Sand dwellers by nature, the Nimbochromis species such as Nimbochromis Venustus (above), notable for its giraffe-like spots, are larger, predatory cichlids.

They can readily grow to 8-9” in an aquarium, and are likely to become a terror to smaller cichlids as they grow. Always keep in mind the golden rule of aquaria “if another fish can fit in its mouth, it probably will”.

Labidochromic Caeruleus

labidochromic caeruleus
Also known as “Electric Yellow” Labs, L. Caeruleus are a very common Lake Malawian cichlid, and in many ways are an ideal starter species for the aspiring African cichlid hobbyist.

Both males and females are bright yellow in color with black fins, and so are their fry. Dominant males develop larger black markings on their fins as well as often showing multiple false egg spots on their anal fins that aid in the mouthbrooding behaviors.

As Africans go, yellow labs are quite mild and are better tank-mates to more peaceful species than most.

Pseudotropheus Acei

pseudotropheus acei
One of the most recognizable of the various Pseudotropheus species that make up a large number of Lake Malawi’s denizens, Ps. Acei is another fish where both males and females display brilliant coloration; in this case deep purple bodies and bright yellow fins.

Males tend to be larger and thicker than females, and also display multiple egg spots. These fish are another species that is very easy to breed in a moderately sized aquarium.

It is a moderately aggressive species and can be kept with species that are either more peaceful or more belligerent than they are.

Pseudotropheus Saulosi

pseudotropheus saulosi

This gorgeous species is a little harder to find in many fish stores, but is highly sought after. A dwarf mbuna, pseudotropheus saulosi tops out at 3-4”, making it an ideal resident in a smaller tank.

Females and fry are bright yellow, while males develop a deep blue coloration with black barring, which makes for a beautiful combination in a single-species tank.


Blue melanochromis gold melanchromis

While these fish are fairly small, with a maximum size around 5”, they are among the most aggressive of the Malawi-dwelling mbuna. Including species like the blue M. johanni or the gold M. auratus, these are very tempting for the newcomer to African cichlids.

However we firmly believe that they should be kept only by experienced aquarists, likely in single species tanks with plenty of cover. When in breeding mode, these can quickly turn into homicidal maniacs and wreak havoc in a show tank.

Final Thoughts

This only touches the surface of the beautiful and fascinating species that populate Lake Malawi.

With a few notable exceptions, most fish from Lake Malawi can be kept together, though trial and error is a necessary component of any mixed-species African tank. For all of these species, lots of rocks to break up line of sight and provide caves and hidey-holes are recommended.

The advantages of choosing a tank setup from Lake Malawi include the ease of stocking as well-equipped fish stores will have a reasonable supply of these fish.

Additionally, most of these species are now being bred by hobbyists, so very few if any of them are “wild caught” directly from the lake, which obviously has far less of an ecological impact.

When adding new fish to an established tank of African cichlids, we advise adding groups of fish at one time rather than individuals who are more likely to be bullied, and if possible add fish in order from least to most aggressive. If this isn’t possible, then doing a major water change and rearranging the décor can break up territories and give the newly added fish a better chance at an even footing.