Degrees of Aggression in the Haplochromines of Lake Malawi
I have found that you will get as many opinions about aggression levels in cichlids as you will find people who keep them. Still, it is a question people regularly ask. After all, compatibility is a huge issue for aquarium owners. Because of that, I have undertaken to present a list of the Malawi haplochromines that I have kept, sorted by level of aggression according to my experience with these particular species. The list is limited to species I have kept. Bear in mind that aggression varies between fish of the same species and tankmates of other species. Species' similarities also play a role in aggression. Fish that draw upon the same food sources in nature (foragers, algae feeders, predators, etc.) or share a similar habitat preference (open water, rock dwelling, cave dwelling, shell dwelling, etc.) will often exhibit greater levels of aggression toward one another than other species. Likewise, fish that look particularly similar will often show more aggression to one another. Having said that, I have constructed this list without scientifically examining each species under the same set of circumstances, so take it with a grain of salt. The fish are listed from least aggressive/ most community compatible to most aggressive/ least community compatible.
- Placidochromis sp. 'phenochilus tanzania - males show some aggression toward one another, but the damage is superficial at worst. These fish can grow quite large (nearly 10" in length) so factor that into the equation; if kept in aquariums too small for them, male to male intraspecific aggression will be higher, but given appropriate tank space multiple males can easily be kept together. Male to female aggression is very minimal, while aggression between females is also nominal. This species shows virtually no aggression toward other species and can be kept with anything that will not easily fit into its mouth. This is one of my personal favorites because of its spectacular and unique appearance coupled with its easy going personality - that is a rare combination in the world of cichlids.
- Aulonocara stuartgranti Ngara - I have a lone male of this species, so I haven't had the opportunity to witness intraspecific behavior, but the hobbyist who sold me my specimen had numerous fully colored males in a tank no more than 35 gallons. In relation to other species, this fish is ultra peaceful. I have never seen him chase another fish in the tank, not once. Fish can have individual nuances just like human beings, so this fish may not be typical of the species as whole, but in my limited experience this is a very peaceful peacock.
- Fossorochromis rostratus - the spectacular males of this species can grow quite large (up to 16"), but it is a rather peaceful fish. It can be kept with much smaller fish without any drawbacks (as long as they won't fit easily into its maw). A gentleman I know told me he had three fully colored males around 9" long and several females in a 75 gallon aquarium with very little trouble. That is pretty remarkable for a cichlid species of that size. Typically you will not see multiple males of a haplochromine species color up simultaneously unless there is ample space. I have kept a lone male, so I cannot speak to aggression between males, but the females have received little to no abuse from the male or one another. They typically pay no attention to the other inhabitants of the aquarium. That is a major bonus.
- Copadichromis melas - the midnight mloto, as they are known within the aquarium trade, is a mostly peaceful fish. Males will tussle with one another, but multiple males can be maintinaed in a 75 gallon aquarium or larger. I will note that males of this species seem to take a long time to color up to the deep black coloration for which thaye are prized. I can't recall witnessing much aggression toward other species of fish in the tank. This is an unusually colored Malawi hap worth searching for, and worth paying for.
- Copadichromis sp. 'mloto fluorescent' - also known as the green faced mloto, seems to land somewhere in the middle aggression-wise. I was able to keep multiple colored males in a 75 gallon aquarium along with a number of females and several uncolored males. The dominant male did a good deal of chasing his conspecefics, but there was very little damage done. I did not keep these fish with any similar hap types, so I cannot speak to interspecies aggression, but all in all I would consider them relatively docile.
- Sciaenochromis fryeri "White Knight" - this species is moderately aggressive toward other species. My two males would occasionally chase and nip their tankmates, but they are primarily aggressive toward their own species and very similar fish, like Otopharynx lithobates. From time to time the males did injure one another noticeably, leaving an open wound or puffed out eye. Mine were housed, as adults, in a 90 gallon aquarium and the damage was never severe enough that either male did not recover from his injuries. Their attentions toward other species were always most severe when they were the toughest - that is a relative term - fish species in the tank. The lone female I owned was perpetually holding eggs or fry. The males would never truly hurt her, but they also never allowed her any rest.
- Otopharynx lithobates Zimbawe Rock - I have seen profiles describing this species as mildly aggressive. I would disagree. When this fish is not the dominant fish in the tank they may appear less aggressive, but males are still very determined to pester and hassle any of their own kind in the tank. Males are intolerant of one another. Females also exhibit a heavy dose of intraspecific aggression. To top it off, when there are no more-dominant species in the tank, O. lithobates will harass all of the other species in the tank. In my opinion this species does not make a good top dog fish in a mixed tank.
- Aulonocara jacobfreibergi Otter Point - this peacock species is a cave dweller in nature and exhibits far more aggression in the aquarium than most of the other peacocks. I had a beautiful male (these are my favorite Aulonocara, based on appearance alone) who killed all five of his siblings in a 75 gallon mixed species aquarium. He then grew into a beautiful adult who was only subdued by the OB peacock male in the tank. This is a beautiful species whose aggression must be managed.
- Protomelas taeniolatus - the red empress is a flashy, strikingly beautiful fish. The lone male I kept was one of my favorites, and always one of the fish of which visitors made note. When my male got to around 6 to 7 inches long, he became the king of the 90 gallon tank. Note that this was after my large OB peacock was removed. In any case, the red empress became a monster of sorts. Perhaps if I had housed females with him, he may have been less testy toward other species, but I doubt it. This fish harassed anyone and everyone unfortunate enough to fall into his line of sight. A larger tank would probably go a long way in minimizing the aggression of this fish simply by granting tankmates more space to escape to and hide in.
- OB peacock - it could be argued that this fish does not even belong in a discussion about haps, but based on the visual similarities and the association with the genus Aulonocara, I have to include them. They are believed to be a hybrid cross between an Aulonocara species and some undisclosed species of mbuna. One thing is certain, they display an mbuna-like level of aggression toward other species. All of the OB peacock males I owned eventually became the dominant fish in the tank. As youngsters they are nippy, but they are not overly monstrous. As they age and come into their own, the level of aggression rises tremendously. They will abuse females of their own kind. They seem to absolutely hate one another. And they are intolerant of most of the other Aulonocara species males. Given a large amount of space, OB peacock males can be a decent top dog in a tank because they will keep the other fish in line, but they are pretty relentless. Another strike against them is their tendency to breed with females of almost any haplochromine species. In any case these are one of the most aggressive hap-type fish you could get.