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Breeding Malawi Cichlids

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Breeding Malawi Cichlids

View a video clip of Otopharynx Lithobates aquarium spawning courtesy of © M.K. Oliver, Ph.D

For an indepth sexing guide visit

Introduction to Breeding

If you want to breed your Malawi cichlids then all you need is a guaranteed pair and the right water conditions. The most common way of sexing these cichlids is the fact that most males have something called dummy egg spots or anal fin spots. These dummy egg spots represent eggs and are there to entice the female into breeding, they can vary in the amount, colour and size from species to species but not all male Malawi cichlids have these spots or may even develop them later on.

It is also possible for some females to have dummy egg spots so this way of sexing is not guaranteed but is a good place to start. Another common way that can be used in conjunction with egg spots is size. I find it best to try and pick the biggest and the smallest from a batch as there is a better chance of females being slightly smaller than their males.

The obvious difference is colour as males have to display this to attract a female when breeding but again it is possible to have very colourful females so in the end if they breed you have a pair. Malawi cichlids are one of the easiest cichlids to breed and once they do you might find you have more young than you accounted for. The secret to their success is the females, they not only incubate and carry the eggs in their mouths but once hatched will carry and protect their young fry too. This is why they are sometimes referred to as mouthbrooders.

Breeding Begins

Breeding starts with the male who will aggressively chase the female but this is not to hurt her, this is to get in front of her and show off his colours. He shows of his colours which is also known as his breeding dress by shaking himself in front of her and displaying all his fins in the hope that the female likes what she sees. If the female is ready to breed or "Ripe" which is another name for it then and only then shall she breed. If she is not ready then she will just ignore the male which is when some males turn aggressive towards the unwilling female.

By this time the male will have established his own territory in which he will have chosen a cave. Once this cave is chosen he prepares it for the female by moving any debris and digging it out to make a suitable breeding surface. The larger open swimming Haplochromis genus do not use caves to breed in so the males will dig a pit in the sandy substrate for the female but the rest of the breeding process is the same as Mbuna.

If the male is successful in winning the female over then she will follow him back to his cave where breeding will begin. If she disapproves of his newly prepared cave then the male will have to find an alternative breeding place for them. Once happy with their chosen place you will see the couple circling round each other and shaking. This display is to encourage the female to start depositing her eggs.

There are now two ways in which these eggs can be fertilised. Which way depends on the individual species and the threat from the other fish in the tank. The first way is when the female drops a few of her eggs the male will swim over them releasing his sperm and then the female will collect these fertilised eggs up in to her mouth then proceed to drop a few more. The second way is when the female drops some of her eggs she will pick them straight up in her mouth but sees the dummy eggs spots on the males anal fin as mention at the beginning. She will then nibble at these markings thinking they are some of her eggs and try to pick them up into her mouth but by doing so this encourages the male to release his sperm which goes straight into her mouth along with the eggs that she had already collected so fertilisation takes place in the mouth.

After breeding the female will leave his cave with her mouth full of eggs and try to find somewhere safe to hide. If you want to keep these young then this is the time to catch the female and put her in a tank on her own. You have to be very careful when netting her as some first time mums and even experienced mums will spit out their eggs when they feel threatened.

If this happens then carry on and place her in the separate tank and quickly collect up any eggs that you can see and place them in the tank and leave her. Sometimes females will pick them back up, other times they ignore or even eat them. It is possible to hatch the eggs yourself. I have had success in doing this by putting the eggs in a net with a small stone in the bottom to stop it floating and placing an airstone underneath the net. The movement from the bubbling water mimics the way the mother would turn her eggs over in her mouth.

If you are lucky to hatch the Malawi cichlid fry you can feed them on Liquid Fry or a similar egg layers baby food until they are big enough to take crushed flake food.

If the female is still carrying her eggs then normal incubation lasts around three weeks in which time she may or may not eat, this is normal as I have had females that do and females that do not. She will let her young out only when she feels that it is safe to do so but will quickly gather them up when she feels threatened. When she can no longer hold her young in her mouth she will then be forced to spit them out but will still try to collect them back up when she sees one.

This is when you can catch her and put her back in your main tank making sure her mouth is empty first. You can do this by placing small rocks in the tank so that her young can hide and she can not get them.

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