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Malawi Mbuna Cichlids

Sexing and Breeding

Sexing very young mbuna is difficult, because the juvenile fish will all initially look like the mother. At around 1.5-2" (4-5cm), males will begin to change colour. Note that not all species show sexual dichromatism (differences in colour between male and female). In those species where there are no clear differences in colour or markings, there are a number of general indications which may help, especially in older fish. Males will tend to be larger with more intense colouration. They may have larger or more numerous egg spots. In some species egg spots are quite a reliable indication of male gender, while in others they are not. Males will also be more generally aggressive and territorial. See the profiles in the Fish Index for more details of sexing individual species.

If good water quality is maintained, the mbuna will breed readily in the aquarium, even in a crowded mixed mbuna tank. Left to their own devices, some fry will occasionally survive, especially if there is plenty of rockwork to hide among. Mbuna, being mainly herbivores, are not generally highly predatory, though some species, like those of the Melanochromis genus, will hunt down fry quite efficiently.

Many Melanochromis will
prey on fry.

The first indication of spawning behaviour is likely to be increased aggression from the male, who will be displaying his brightest colours, and probably digging up the substrate. He may then appear to coax the female over to his chosen spot and shake his body violently in front of her. Mbuna are mouthbrooders, and the female will hold the eggs and then fry in her mouth after spawning for around 21-40 days. During this time she may become quite thin, as she will eat little or no food. The throat of the female will have an obvious bulge due to the fry, and dark spots due to the eyes of the fry can often be seen.

If you wish to raise the fry separately, rather than leave them to take their chances in the main tank, you have several options. Catching the fry after the female has released them is likely to be near impossible, especially in a tank with plenty of rocky decor. Another option is known as 'stripping' the female of her young. The various methods recommended for this are beyond the scope of this article, but generally it involves catching and holding the female while various methods are employed to coax her to release the fry. These range from having the female in a turkey baster or similar, head downwards, to release the fry through the bottom, to gently prising the mouth of the female open with a pencil... Personally I am not in favour of these methods, as I believe they all involve a fair amount of stress for the female. Some experienced breeders who use these methods say they are not overly stressful. However, it is likely that some of the techniques could take a while to become skilled at, and those attempting them for the first time might find them stressful to both fish and owner!

A better method would be to catch and isolate the female to her own small tank, and allow her to release the fry naturally. This could be a small 10 gallon tank with a heater and simple sponge filter. Add a cave or two to give her some security, and fill the tank using water from the main tank when you are ready to catch and transfer her. When she has naturally released the fry (patience required!), it would be ideal to move the female to a second small tank so that she can recover from the ordeal and be fed properly, before returning her to the tank. Due to her absence from the tank, she may be treated as a newcomer, so distraction techniques as discussed in the last section may be needed.

Picture of Ps demasoni, parents with fry in background

By the time they are released from the mother's mouth, mbuna fry are a lot larger than the fry of many species, and therefore easier to feed. Some algae covering on the rocks will be a useful supplement. As with other fry, baby brine shrimp are an excellent food for young cichlid fry, they can also be given crushed flake and other small foods.

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