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Main Index > Cichlids of the African Rift Lakes
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    I am going to change the format on this section as all the information written in the cichlids page is applicable to these fish as well. I will give some specific information on the care of the fish from each individual lake. To view some quick statistics on many individual fish just click on their picture.

African Cichlids
    I have added the word "Rift" in the title of this page to emphasize the specific region where these cichlids live; namely the Rift lakes of Malawi and Tanganyika and Victoria. When you hear the term "African cichlids," most people think of fish from these great lakes, but Africa is home to a wide variety of Cichlids that inhabit other areas other than the lakes.
Click for a larger map of the lakes
Click for full size map.
Non Rift Lake Cichlids



General Requirements:

    Due to their aggressive behavior, the tank for African cichlids should be as large as possible, with its length being more critical than its height; meaning the longer the better.

    The substrate should be of a material that will aid in the pH buffering capabilities of the water. Good substrate choices could be Dolomite or crushed coral.

    Decorations for the aquaria should include rock structures with caves and platforms, but leave an open area for swimming. Try to avoid driftwood as it tends to lower pH over time.

    The use of live plants is a hit or miss situation (usually miss) due to the African's vegetarian nature. Lighting is not critical and can be of any spectrum or color you like.

    The water chemistry for the African lakes differs greatly from all other biotopes and more closely resembles marine than tropical fresh water. Due to their high pH and hardness levels it is necessary to treat the water with some sort of African cichlid lake salts. Two products I use and find excellent are Kent AF Cichlid Buffer and Kent AF Cichlid Chemistry.

    In nature, feeding is by scraping the algae covered (Aufwuchs) rock surfaces, and in the aquarium it is not a problem as all flake food is accepted, but it should be supplemented with a plant based formula containing something like spirulina.

    Almost all of the species from Lake Malawi are known as mouth-brooders. They incubate the eggs and protect their fry in special sacs in the mouth. They are excellent and protective parents and have been known to raise young in crowded community setups.

    Tanganyikan cichlids are more varied in their spawning techniques and consist of open spawning mouthbrooders and even some that use empty snail shells. They too are great parents.

    This is a general overview of these fish. There is much more in-depth information available on them. Suffice to say that if you are willing to meet their needs, the African cichlids will provide you with many years of enjoyment.


    The Rift Lake cichlids have very different and specialized needs, which will be outlined here on a lake to lake basis.

Lake Malawi Water Statistics

Area 11,430 Sq.Miles.
Maximum Depth About 2,300 Feet
Clarity Up To 70 feet
pH 7.7 to 8.6
Total Hardness 4.0 to 6.0º H
Carbonate Hardness 6.0 to 8.0
Surface Temperature 76 to 85º F
Deep Water Temp. 69º F
Conductivity At 68º F 210-285  micro-Siemens/cm
Lake Malawi

cape maclear 
View to Cape MaClear, Lake Malawi.
Photo by Liolsten Kaonga


    Lake Malawi, also known as Nyasa, is the third largest in Africa (after Lake Victoria and lake Tanganyika), and is located at the south-west of Tanzania. The lake is bordered by three countries, Tanzania , Malawi and Mozambique. It is 360 miles long, 25 miles in width, and covers an area of more than 11,430 square miles . In some parts, the lake is as deep as 700 meters and has a distinctive characteristic: 14 rivers pouring their waters into the lake, and only one river which flows out to the sea, River Shire. The lake lies in the sided walls of mountain ranges: the forested Livingston Mountains and Nyika Plateau.

    Lake Malawi from space

    The water chemistry in Lake Malawi is very similar to that of Lake Victoria. pH ranges from 7.8 to 8.6, with a total hardness of 4.0-6.0 dH. Carbonate hardness ranges from 6.0 to 8.0. The variation is caused by the level of dissolved carbon dioxide 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 and consequently, the pH is lower there. Surface temperature ranges from 76 to 85°F, while the temperature at lower levels of the lake remain at a constant 70 degrees.

    Lake Malawi has traditionally provided a major food source to the residents of Malawi as it is rich in fish, the most famous of which are the Chambo, consisting of 4 species of the cichlid genus Nyasalapia, as well as the large catfish Bagrus meridionalis.

    Malawi cichlids are divided into two basic groups loosely referred to as the Haplochromines and the Tilapiines. Within the Haplochromines are two sub-groups. The first sub-group consist of the open water Utaka such as Sciaenochromis fryeri

    Sciaenochromis fryeri

    Protomelas species such as the well known P. steveni 'Taiwan’, P. taeniolatus ‘Namalenje’ and others from the genera; Copadichromis, Mylochromis, Cyrtocara and Buccochromis. Unlike the vegetarian Mbuna, Haplochromis species are piscivores which means they prey on small fish, particularly other small cichlids. Most Haplochromines are only moderately aggressive. Also classified in this first sub-group are the sand dwelling species that include Lethrinops,, Taeniolethrinops, and Tramitichromis that do not spend their entire lives in the vicinity of rocks, as do the mbuna. These are often slightly larger-growing species than the mbuna, and most exhibit a dull silver color with irregular black bars, until the male is near adult size, at which time the vibrant blues and other colours are displayed. They can form large shoals over sandy areas, or even in open water, where they feed on the abundant Malawi lake flies (Chaoboris edulis) that swarm at certain times of year. Although many utaka species will still frequent rocky areas of the lake, they are not dependant on the rocky environment for their territories or for feeding and reproduction.

    Photo courtesy of Kevin Bauman


    The second sub-group consists of the most commonly found cichlids in Lake Malawi, the popular Mbuna - or rock dwelling fish, a large group of vegetarian cichlids that live among large piles of rocks along the shoreline where they graze the algae which grows profusely in that habitat. The Mbuna such as the Electric Yellow Labidochromis caeruleus are highly colorful and generally small.

    Though most commonly seen in large groups, Mbuna are not schooling fish. In some areas of Lake Malawi, 20 fish per square meter is not uncommon. These are aggressive cichlids which have a distinct social structure. The aggression is most often directed toward fish which appear similar in body shape or coloring which are seen as a threat for food and mating. Both sexes of the more than 100 species of Mbuna are unusually colorful with bright patterns of horizontal stripes or vertical bars. These consist primarily of the genera Pseudotropheus, Labidochromis, Melanochromis, Labeotropheus and Metriaclima. Probably the most recognized species of mbuna are the members of the genera Pseudotropheus with P. zebra being the most popular of all. P. zebra has many color variations ranging from blue to red to spotted, there is even an albino variation


    The second group, the Tilapiines, consists of the only substrate spawning species in the lake , as well as the 4 species of Chambo (Nyasalapia).



female Melanochromis auratus

Female Melanochromis auratus

male Melanochromis auratus

Male Melanochromis auratus


    Both Mbuna and Haplochromis 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.




    Another important aquarium cichlids from the lake include the "Utaka-Cichlids" which live in the open water regions and feed on the zooplankton floating in the water. They are some of the most vivid blues seen and can rival any marine fish. They grow larger than the mbuna and therefore require a larger tank

Lake Tanganyika Water Statistics

Area 12,700 Sq. Miles
Maximum Depth Over 4,700 Feet
Clarity Up To 70 Feet
pH 8.6 - 9.5
Total Hardness 11 - 17 ºH
Carbonate Hardness 16 - 19 ºH
Surface Temperature 76 to 85º F
Deep Water Temp. About 70º F
Conductivity At 68ºF 570-640 micro-Siemens/cm
Lake Tanganyika

Ruizizi river
Ruizizi river flowing into Lake Tanganyika.
Photo from the Lake Tanganyika fisheries research site.


    Lake Tanganyika is the oldest lake in Africa and possibly the world, having been formed during the Miocene era about 20 million years ago. Nowhere else in the world do we find as large and as deep a lake whose lifespan encompasses so many millions of years of uninterrupted and gradual evolution. The lake is a closed system and thus, virtually all of the lake's cichlids are endemic; More than 95 percent of its cichlids are not found anywhere else in the world. Moreover, while other African Great lake such as Malawi and Victoria may have more cichlids, Tanganyika's cichlid fauna is more specialized and diverse.

    Lake Tanganyika from space

    Due to its size, Lake Tanganyika has remarkable stability with regard to temperature and chemical composition. There is just under 5° F difference between the surface and the bottom, the result of volcanic activity close to the lake's bottom. With no significant temperature difference, there is no driving force for the vertical currents that occur in most lakes, which provide oxygen to the deepest portions of lake systems and thus, all fish life in Lake Tanganyika is confined to the uppers layers. Here, specific biotopes provide very different ecological niches which have resulted in the specialization and segregation of the various lake species.

    • Surge Habitat: The upper three feet of water at the shore where crashing waves produce high oxygen levels and very low carbon dioxide is considered the surge. Goby cichlids such as Eretmodus cyanostictus have adapted to this environment and in fact, it is the only place where they are found.

    • Rocky Shores: The rocky habitat can be broken down into upper slope areas comprised of sediment free rock of greatly varying size, with lush biocover providing an algal carpet of nutrient for herbivorous species such as Tropheus moorii. The rocky habitat covered in sediment is found further down the slope and while some algae may be found here, this is primarily a sedimental habitat inhabited by smaller cichlids which find shelter between the rocks. Here are found such specialized cichlids as Altolamprologus compressiceps; with a high backed and lateral compression this cichlid is perfectly adapted to squeeze between the rock crevices where it feeds on small shrimp.

      Altolamprologus compressiceps
      Altolamprologus compressiceps

    • The Shallow Rocky Shore: Areas found from the surface to a depth of twenty feet or so, this habitat covers a sandy floor with rocks and pebbles. Food is most abundant here and thus this habitat contains the most successful and abundant cichlid species. Generally, the inhabitants of this biotope, such as Petrochromis fasciolatus and Altolamprologus compressiceps exhibit a barred pattern which blends well with the shallow water background and is thought to confuse fish eating birds.

    • Benthic Waters: Deep portions of the oxygenated lake waters contain cichlids such as Benthochromis tricoti found exclusively at depths between 165 and 500 feet and feeds on small prey such as the plankton, copepods and small shrimp found here.

    • Sandy bottom: Erosion has been at work here for millions of years, resulting in a layer of sediment on the lake bottom which is a mile thick in places. Sandy bottoms ranging from the foot of rock strewn slopes to gently rolling plains exist throughout the lake. Here, the 'shell dwellers' such as Neolamprologus multifasciatus utilize the acumulated snail shells, while sand dwellers such as Callochromis and Xenotilapia species live in colonies numbering in the hundreds.

    • Mud Floor: The bottom has neither a sandy nor rocky substrate and includes organic wastes, decaying organisms and bacteria which provide food for zooplankton found here. Crustaceans, insect larvae, worms and other invertebrates provide food for cichlids such as Trematocara nigrifrons and Triglachromis otostigma which has adapted to life on the bottom.



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    The most popular cichlids from Lake Tanganyika include the Neolamprologus, Lamprologus, Julidochromis and Tropheus species. Since in the wild, these cichlids never wander far from their rocky niche, they can be made comfortable within the confines of an aquarium containing an assemblage of rocks which comprise their native habitat. Tropheus are a rock-bound group of cichlids which differ from both Lamprologus and Julidochromis in that they are mouth brooders and strict herbivores. One of the most colorful of the Neolamprologus is the leleupi complex. The Julidochromis are a particularly desirable group in that they are easy to maintain, easy to breed and very interesting from a behavioural standpoint. These cichlids are very streamlined and unlike most of the Rift Lake species, form distinct 'pair bonds'.

    Tanganyikan cichlids are not as commonly available as their Malawi cousins, their following is usually limited to the cichlid specialist.

ahli, click for quick care stats
Sciaenochromis ahli
troppheus, click for quick care stats
Troppheus moorii
bricardi, click for quick care stats


Lake Victoria
    Lake Victoria, discovered in 1858 by the British explorer John Speke, is the largest of all African Lakes and the world's second largest freshwater lake, covering an area of 26,560 sq miles. Its extensive area belongs to three countries; the northern half to Uganda, the southern half to Tanzania, and part of the northeastern sector to Kenya. The lake occupies a wide depression near the equator, between the East and West Great Rift Valleys, but its drainage basin is relatively small, being slightly less than three times the lake's surface in area. The lake water is drained into the Victoria Nile which flows northward via Lake Albert and the White Nile forming the uppermost reaches of the Nile River. Many people believe that Lake Victoria is counted among the 'Rift Lakes' but in fact it is not, though the lake lies within the Victoria basin. As recently as 12,500 years ago Lake Victoria was a grassy plain, making it the youngest of the three east african lakes.

Lake Victoria from space

    The water in Lake Victoria is much less clear than that in Lakes Tanganyika and Malawi though the chemistry is quite similar to the latter. Transparency has been measured between less than 4 and 10 feet in inshore areas. The pH is alkaline, ranging from 7.2 to 8.6, and carbonate hardness is between 2 and 8 dH. The temperature can be as low as 70 degrees at the surface during the dry season and reaches 81 degrees during the wet season. Some biotopes of the lake resemble those of Lake Malawi, with lots of large rocks Lake Victoria harbors a unique species-rich flock of more than 500 endemic Haplochromine cichlids including the Astatotilapia, Lipochromis, Lithochromis, Paralabidochromis and Pundamilia Unfortunately, the ecosystem of Lake Victoria and its surroundings have been badly affected by human influence. Lake Victoria is on the verge of becoming a dead lake. There are several reasons for the rapid depletion of the cichlids in Lake Victoria. The first is the introduction of two non-endemic species of fish. In the 1950's British colonists introduced the Nile Perch (Lates niloticus) and the Nile Tilapia (Oreochromis niloticus). These fishes were introduced to provide a food source for the countries around the lake because they grow much larger than the cichlids. It is this size combined with the predatory behavior of the Nile Perch that scientists believe has been the cause for the extinction of so many cichlid species in the lake. The Nile Tilapia on the other hand is a plankton-eating fish which has an indirect effect inasmuch as it competes for food with some of the cichlid species. Additionally, the vast amounts of pollution that is flowing into the Lake from the surrounding countries due in no small part to a substantial population boom in recent years, vastly increased the amount of pollution being pumped into the lake. At the present time, oxygen levels at the bottom of the lake are not sufficient to support life. Further, the visibility is so poor that the brightly colored cichlids from the lake are having trouble correctly identifying mates and therefore not mating as often. The significant increase in algae levels in the lake as a result of the pollution which provides the necessary nutrients for algae growth has further exacerbated the problem. The algae levels are five to ten times the levels of the 1960's. As pollution levels go up, algae growth increases. In turn the algae that dies off creates more pollution in an apparent never-ending cycle of lake destruction. Much of the damage is vast and irreversible. Half of the cichlids species originally found in Lake Victoria are already thought to be extinct and the rest are endangered species unless they still thrive in one of the satellite lakes. In response to the problem, zoos and aquariums in the US and Europe created the "Lake Victoria Species Survival Program" to maintain these endangered species. Few in any beautiful Victorian Haplochromines in the hobby today are wild caught and they are, in general, becoming increasingly difficult to obtain. Some of the more commonly tank raised cichlids from Lake Victoria include:

Pundamilia nyererei

Photo courtesy of Kevin Bauman

Photo courtesy of Kevin Bauman


Haplochromis sp. "flameback"

Photo courtesy of Kevin Bauman


Haplochromis sp. thick skin "red tail"

Photo courtesy of Kevin Bauman

Photo courtesy of Kevin Bauman





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