Best Substrate for Mbuna Cichlids

Last updated: September 29, 2022

The first thing you need to consider when choosing a substrate for mbuna cichlids is whether or not it will affect the pH levels in your tank.

Mbunas are very hardy, aggressive fish that require well-established tanks with lots of rockwork to hide in. They are not suitable for a newly set up tank or those with soft substrates. Mbunas have a tendency to dig and rearrange their tank enviroment, so it is important that the substrate is hard enough not to be moved around by them.

You should also consider how much work it will be to maintain your tank before deciding on a substrate type. Some substrates are very easy to clean, while others require more work and effort on your part.

The most popular types of substrate for mbuna cichlids include:


Sand is a good substrate if you have aggressive fish in your tank. It is soft enough that it won’t damage the scales of your Mbuna, but it also absorbs waste and provides aeration for your tank water.


Rocks are also popular with Mbuna cichlids because they provide hiding places for these territorial fish and give them something to dig into for burrowing purposes. Rocks can be very heavy, though, so make sure you have strong enough anchors in place before adding any rocks to your tank.

It’s important to note that mbuna cichlids are extremely territorial and aggressive towards each other, so it’s important to choose a substrate that will allow them to claim their own territory without having an impact on their health or behavior. For example, sand or crushed coral aren’t good substrates for mbunas because they don’t provide enough structure or stability for each individual fish to claim their own territory within the tank.

Sand vs Gravel For Mbuna Cichlids?

One of the most common questions we get asked is whether or not sand or gravel is better for Mbuna African Cichlids. Most people who ask this question have never owned an Mbuna African Cichlid before and are looking for some advice on what type of substrate would be best for them.

Why We Recommend Sand For Mbuna African Cichlids?

Sand provides several benefits over gravel or other substrates:

Sand allows water flow through it easily so that it doesn’t get clogged up with debris like leaves and other plant matter (if you use live plants). If you use gravel then you need something like a sump system so that the water can flow through it without getting clogged up with debris from plants growing in

Do Mbuna Need Rocks?

Mbuna are usually referred to as “rock-dwelling” cichlids because many of their species hail from rocky, stream-like habitats in Lake Malawi. I’ve always thought their preferred rocks were for the purpose of territorial defense, or for use as a simple place to rest.

We have come to the conclusion that crushed coral and aragonite sand are the best substrates for mbunas. They meet all of the requirements above and also have a neutral pH level, allowing for a wide variety of fish species to be kept in the tank with them.