Lake Malawi cichlids (Cichlidae family)

Lake Malawi Cichlids

Inside Heart of Africa behind the giraffe house. Also where you'll find the indoor quarters for bongos and Congo buffalo.

Fast facts

Status Varies from Vulnerable to Critically Endangered. Some species are now Extinct

Size From 2.5- 90cm from head to tail, depending on the species.

Gestation Dependant on species, can be within 3 weeks or up to 3 months

Young Can lay 10-100’s of eggs depending on species

Life span unknown in the wild, between 10-18 years in captivity

What do I eat?

Lake Malawi cichlids (sick-lids) are found in all sizes and colours. These animals even have very different diets due to their specialised jaws and teeth.

Some species of cichlid are herbivores, feeding on algae on rocks and logs or on plankton. There are carnivorous cichlids that will feed on dead skin and parasites on other fish, or prey on the offspring of other cichlids; there are even species of cichlid that will act dead to attract fish over to them before catching and eating those fish!

Where do I live?

This diverse family of fish are found in Lake Malawi in southern Africa. This lake is home to hundreds of different species of cichlids that have evolved very quickly over the last 12,000 to 100,000 years.

The cichlids in Lake Malawi belong to two groups: the Mbuna, which live in the rocky areas of the lake, and the non- Mbuna which live in all the other areas.


In many species of cichlid the males and females look very different, usually the male is more brightly coloured. Courtship displays vary from species to species, from using their colourations to attract partners to building elaborate platforms (also known as castles) from sand; even how these animals care for their young can be very different. 

Some cichlids are known as ‘mouth brooders’. The female will hold the fertilised eggs and the young in her mouth. If there is danger nearby the young fish will swim back in to their mother’s mouth for protection. Other species will lay their eggs in an area on rocks or submerged logs.


Many larger species of cichlids in Lake Malawi will prey on the smaller species of cichlid in the same habitat. This area is unique, as Lake Malawi is almost exclusively home to cichlids!

To stay safe, cichlids will use their colourations to blend in their environment and will swim away from a potential threat.


Lake Malawi cichlids are facing a very uncertain future, as they are classed from vulnerable to extinct primarily due to over fishing. This has caused devastating effects on cichlid numbers, as many of the larger individuals of cichlid species have become hard to find and catch leading some local people to use mosquito nets to catch young fish as a source of food. In addition the introduction of the carnivorous Nile perch has caused the dramatic decline in many cichlid species.

There are conservation efforts in place to protect these fish in the wild, such as encouraging fishermen to use nets that allow smaller fish to pass through, monitoring fishing grounds, and protect breeding grounds of many cichlid species. Lake Malawi cichlids are also part of captive breeding programs around the world.

Did you know?

Due to how different in colour, size, feeding patterns and behaviour of these animals; Lake Malawi cichlids have become very popular with aquarists and aqua culturists over the years.

Lake Malawi has more species of fish than any other lake in the world.

Cichlids that are known as ‘mouth brooders’ do not usually eat when caring for their young.

Since the 19th Century, Lake Malawi cichlids have been researched by scientists, to study the process of how species evolve.

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Junior Keeper Experience

Great fun for children and guardians alike. The staff are keen to share their knowledge of the animals that they obviously care very much about and seeing the animals from such close proximity was brilliant.Junior keeper guest, 23rd January 2020