Breeding Mbuna

Details for breeding the mbuna fish.

Q. I would like to know the likelihood of breeding mbunas in a community aquarium setting. What are the main things to be concerned with?

A. Mbuna live at quite remarkable population densities in nature, and have no observable inhibitions about spawning under far more crowded conditions than those in a typical aquarium. In fact, it can be argued that advanced mouthbrooding evolved in response to high levels of spawn predation inevitable in such situations.

The preliminaries to mbuna spawning begin when the male intersperses bouts of digging with intense courting of the female and persistent efforts to chase other fishes out of his breeding territory. Within 24 hours of the appearance of a short, blunt, white tube at the female’s vent, she will follow the frantically posturing male into the spawning pit. After a period of reciprocal circling, the female expels a few eggs, which she immediately takes into her mouth. As the male tilts to one side, the female mouths the vicinity of his vent. This behavior triggers ejaculation, thereby assuring that the female takes sufficient sperm into her mouth to fertilize the eggs she is carrying therein. This process is repeated until the female has shed all of her eggs. Once she has reached this point, the female no longer responds to the male’s courtship and is then chased out of the male’s territory. When there is only a single pair or if the aquarium is too small, male post-spawning harassment may cause the female to eat her clutch and may result in injury to her, or death. In a community setting, the other fish provide a distraction for the male.

It takes 21 days at 82 to 85 degrees Fahrenheit for the eggs to hatch for all Lake Malawi cichlid fish bred to date. While female mbuna will spawn in a community aquarium, they are much less likely to provide normal post-release care for their young in such an environment. Her reluctance to allow the fry to leave the safety of her mouth interferes with their ability to feed normally. To prevent this situation from arising, most breeders remove the offspring as soon as they are free-swimming.

The newly mobile fry are large enough to take newly hatched brine shrimp or finely crushed prepared foods for their initial meal. With generous feeding and frequent partial water changes, mbuna fry are easily reared and will grow quite rapidly. By three months, males of most species are larger in size and have larger, more clearly defined yellow to orange spots on their anal fins. Most species begin breeding at six to eight months.

Mbuna are popular, and thus there is a variety of literature available with information about them. For example, you will find information on these fish in my book, The Cichlid Aquarium, which is published by Tetra Press.

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