• Species: Cynotilapia afra

  • Species: Labidochromis caeruleus

  • Species: Pseudotropheus socolfi

Dwarf Mbuna

10 June 2009

The dwarf mbuna are a class of Malawian cichlid that share the good points of other mbuna, namely bright colours and active personalities, but with the added benefit of being relatively small in size and consequently a bit easier to house in the average home aquarium. Whereas the average mbuna is around 15 cm (6 inches) in length when fully grown, dwarf mbuna only get to about 8 cm (3.5 inches) in length.

There are several species of dwarf mbuna in the trade, mostly species of Cynotilapia, Labidochromis, and Pseudotropheus. By mbuna standards, Cynotilapia and Labidochromis tend to be fairly mild and get along well with each other. The dwarf Pseudotropheus are a bit more feisty, but given space, can be mixed with the other dwarf mbuna successfully.

Getting hold of dwarf mbuna isn’t usually too difficult. The Yellow Lab (Labidochromis caeruleus) is virtually ubiquitous nowadays, and most good aquarium shops have this fish in stock. Among the other dwarf mbuna, species like the Dog-tooth Cichlid (Cynotilapia afra) and the Demasoni (Pseudotropheus demasoni) shouldn’t be at all hard to find either. Do take care to get good quality stock though; because dwarf mbuna breed relatively easily, they’re prone to hybridisation and stunting. Poor quality fish will lack the bright colours of the wild-caught or carefully bred specimens.

Aquarium size

There’s a temptation to assume that dwarf mbuna could be kept in small tanks, but that simply isn’t true. These aren’t the equivalents of the Tanganyikan shell-dwellers for example, species that work well in tanks as small as 45 litres (10 gallons). By contrast dwarf mbuna are only marginally less demanding about space than their larger mbuna cousins, and the aquarist should take great care not to overcrowd them.

In fact the best way to approach dwarf mbuna is not by seeing them as fish for the small aquarium, but as small fish that are more easily stocked at realistic densities in large aquaria.

A species like Pseudotropheus demasoni works best in groups of a dozen or more, and being relatively small, such a group could be housed comfortably in a tank measuring around 180 litres (40 gallons) in size. You wouldn’t need to worry about the ratio of males and females too much because there’d be space enough for the females to stay away from the males, and the males wouldn’t fight too violently because each would be able to claim his own territory.

By contrast, when mbuna are kept in smaller numbers the strongest males often become so assertively dominant that they end up killing all the other males and severely harassing the females. But a dozen regular-sized mbuna such as Zebra Cichlids (Pseudotropheus zebra) will need a tank at least twice this size to settle down properly.

So, the best tanks for dwarf mbuna are ones measuring 150-250 litres (30-55 gallons) in size, depending on the species being kept. You can of course keep them in larger tanks, but it isn’t a good idea to mix them with bigger, more aggressive mbuna.


In general terms maintenance is the same as that for the other Lake Malawi cichlids. Hard, alkaline water is essential, and water quality should be excellent. Strong water circulation is favoured. Most species are opportunistic omnivores, eating substantial amounts of algae in the wild but also things like shrimps, snails and insect larvae. A varied diet based on Spirulina flake and frozen bloodworms works well for most dwarf mbuna.

The classic mbuna aquarium uses an external canister filter to provide both biological and mechanical filtration. Ideally, the outflow is connected an undergravel filter, so that the outflow of water is pushed into the filter plate and up through a substrate made from crushed coral topped with coral sand, the two layers kept separate by a gravel tidy. The substrate reacts with any acidity in the water, inhibiting acidification and providing the high pH and carbonate hardness levels these fish enjoy. Additional water circulation can be provided with powerheads or air pumps as required.

An alternative approach is to use a larger canister filter that contains not just the biological and mechanical media but also some crushed coral. This helps to buffer the pH and maintain the carbonate hardness levels. Rift Valley cichlid salt mixes are dissolved into each new bucket of water before it is added to the aquarium. An inexpensive mix can be made at home using, per 20 litres of water, 1 teaspoon of baking soda, 1 tablespoon of Epsom salt, and 1 teaspoon of marine salt mix.


Male Labidochromis do not hold territories, which explains why they tend to be fairly mild mannered when compared to most other mbuna. By contrast, male Cynotilapia and Pseudotropheus are distinctly territorial, and Pseudotropheus especially are prone to throwing their weight around.

Males will hold territories around 30 cm (12 inches) square, and defend these territories most strongly against fish they consider rivals. This will of course include males of their own species, but it often also includes other species with similar colouration. Male Pseudotropheus demasoni for example are notorious for attacking other blue fish, particularly those with vertical bars, while being fairly tolerant of fishes with other colours, such as Yellow Labs. They aren’t precisely peaceful towards species like Yellow Labs; it’s just that they won’t kill them!

If you try mixing some Cynotilapia afra with your Pseudotropheus demasoni though, things will get dicey, and the milder Cynotilapia afra are likely to come off worst. Both species are blue with vertical bars, and as far as territory-holding male Pseudotropheus demasoni are concerned, there’s no difference between other male Pseudotropheus demasoni and Cynotilapia afra.

Some aquarists maintain that Malawian cichlid aggression is best managed by keeping them in overcrowded conditions. This makes it difficult for males to claim territories. But there are some problems with this approach. To start with, an overcrowded tank is by definition more likely to have poor water quality and more likely to experience rapid acidification, both problems that can quickly kill your cichlids if not immediately remedied.

Mbuna maintained in overcrowded conditions are also more likely to suffer from hyperdominance. This is where the dominant male of one species asserts his dominance not just on his own kind, but also any other males in the tank. Those other males stop displaying to the females of their own kind, and for lack of anything better, those females mate with the hyperdominant male. The result is unwanted hybrid fry that neither hobbyists nor retailers want or need.


Female dwarf mbuna form matriarchal families. They mouthbrood their eggs for about three weeks, after which point the fry are released. Female Cynotilapia and Labidochromis do not look after the free swimming fry at all, but female Pseudotropheus will look after the fry for up to a week afterwards.

The best way to avoid hybridisation is to avoid keeping closely related species, for example by keeping just one species of Labidochromis, one species of Cynotilapia, and one species of Pseudotropheus. Unless something goes terribly wrong, the right males will mate with the right females, and the resulting fry will be pure-bred fish rather than hybrids.

Rearing dwarf mbuna fry is generally not difficult. If left to their own devices, they usually find algae and organic detritus to feed on, and adequate numbers will survive to make such maintenance worthwhile. If you’re serious about rearing a sizeable batch of fry, for example you’ve bought wild-caught fish and want to sell the F1 fry you produce, then it’s usually best to remove brooding females to another tank. The female can be removed once she’s released her fry, and then you can rear the fry on liquid fry food, finely powdered flake, brine shrimp nauplii, and algae.

It’s a good idea to feed the females well after breeding. While mouthbrooding, they can’t feed, and after three weeks, they will have lost quite a bit of weight. Ideally, keep the female in the breeding tank (with the fry in a floating breeding trap) for a few weeks while you fatten her up.


There are at least eighteen species of Labidochromis, with one, Labidochromis caeruleus, being very commonly traded. All are much of a muchness in terms of size, behaviour and dietary requirements, so what’s said about Labidochromis caeruleus holds true for the others, should you find them being offered for sale. The genus is more carnivorous than the other dwarf mbuna, feeding extensively on snails, insect larvae and other small prey.

In the wild, the blue morph of Labidochromis caeruleus is by far the most common, but the rarer yellow form, known as the Yellow Lab, is now farmed in such numbers that it turns up in practically every aquarium shop in the country. It’s a superb little fish: 8 cm of brilliant yellow colouration combined with a fairly easy-going temperament. Kept in groups of six or more, these fish generally settle down well producing little in the way of difficulties. They can be a bit nippy at times, but when kept with other dwarf mbuna this shouldn’t really be a problem.

The Likoma Island Clown or Ice-blue Lab (Labidochromis zebroides) is another classic species. While not so commonly traded as the Yellow Lab, it’s well worth tracking down. At less than 6 cm in length when mature, this is a smaller species than many of the other dwarf mbuna mentioned here, but they are robust enough to get along with all but the most aggressive of them.

The Dwarf Zebra (Labidochromis freibergi) is another member of the genus you might encounter. As its name suggests, males look a lot like a miniature Pseudotropheus zebra. Females are plain blue without the vertical bands, and also lack the egg spots on the anal fin.


Only three species are currently ascribed to the genus Cynotilapia, but there are numerous geographical varieties in the trade. Good retailers can obtain some these variants including the stunning variety known as Cynotilapia “Yellow Dorsal”.

Male Cynotilapia defend rocky crevices, whereas females and quiescent males form schools that swim above the sand and rocks. The species is primarily an algae-eater, scraping the rocks with its specially adapted teeth, but they also consume zooplankton. On the whole they’re fairly mild fish that work well in communities, but the males are intolerant of one another and any other fish that shares the same colouration. As such, they work best with species that look completely different, such as Yellow Labs.

The Dog-tooth Cichlid Cynotilapia afra is the most commonly traded species. Males can get to a little over 8 cm, while females are a bit smaller. The species is best kept as a single male alongside a group of females.


Not all Pseudotropheus are dwarf mbuna, but a few are, including three very popular species, Pseudotropheus demasoni, Pseudotropheus saulosi and Pseudotropheus socolofi.

Pseudotropheus are mostly herbivorous fish that do best on Spirulina flake, but meaty foods like bloodworms can be offered as occasional treats. On the whole male Pseudotropheus are most aggressive towards species with similar colouration, and since male Pseudotropheus demasoni and Pseudotropheus saulosi are blue with vertical bands, these two species shouldn’t be mixed. They also tend to be a bit hard on other blue species like Cynotilapia afra as well.

Pseudotropheus demasoni is a very beautiful species that has steadily become more widely traded. Wild fish are highly gregarious, and under aquarium conditions the species needs to be kept in a groups of a dozen or more specimens, otherwise the males become extremely aggressive. Because of its relatively small size, and the fact males and females share essentially the same colouration, keeping this species in a large group is neither difficult nor unsatisfying.

Pseudotropheus saulosi is a species noted for the striking differences between the males and females. Territory-holding males are metallic blue with dark blue vertical bands, while mature females are vivid yellow! Juveniles are yellow as well, but as the males mature and eventually claim territories, their colours gradually change. Like Pseudotropheus demasoni, this species is best kept in a large group.

Pseudotropheus socolofi is one of those species where males and females are virtually identical, though males tend to have more egg spots on the anal fin than the females. It’s fairly standard issue in terms of colouration, essentially powder blue with dark blue bands edging the dorsal, anal and pelvic fins, but makes a nice contrast when kept with things like Yellow Labs. Again, this species is best kept in large groups.