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Friday, June 21, 2024

11 Distinct Species of Fish Native to Lake Malawi

Over 1,000 species are native to Lake Malawi, the enormous African lake, otherwise called Lake Nyasa, situated between Malawi, Mozambique (Lago Niassa), and Tanzania in the East African Rift System.

The lake is home to several distinct species of fish than any other lake in Africa and globally. 

Scientists continue to discover new fishes, believing that the lake may contain over 2000 more species, up to 90% (700) of them belonging to the ‘cichlid family’.

That notwithstanding, we’re going to list here eleven (11) Lake Malawi’s invaluable fish species, out of the 1,000 species, focusing on helping readers gain insight about them.  

1. Mbuna

Mbuna is a large group of cichlid fish species and the most diverged group, native of Africa, precisely, from Lake Malawi. 

Mbuna is an aquarium fish comprised of 12 genera: Melanochromis, Petrotilapia, and Tropheus. 

They’re colorful with bright patterns of either vertical bars or horizontal stripes, possessing other beautiful features that make them an excellent display for aquarists.

Classification of mbuna

Mbuna is commonly a general name for African cichlids Lake Malawi’s large group of fish, belonging to the members of the haplochromine family.

  • Mbuna cichlid habitat

Mbuna reside along the rocky shores, that is, the piles of rock in Lake Malawi. They prefer the rock habitat because it provides them protection, hideout from predators, and room for spawning.

The common name ‘mbuna,’ implying “rockfish” (in Tonga people of Malawi’s dialect), comes from the fact that they live on rocky shores.

Again, mbuna prefer water temperature ranging between 24 – 26 degrees Celsius and pH of 5 or more.

  • Feeding and life cycle

The ideal diet of this fish is mainly vegetables, alga, and vegetables. They have a special diet in the tank and exhibit different eating habits but don’t fight food scarcity. 

Mbuna are omnivorous fish species that feed on zooplankton and aufwuchs that grow in their habitat, although they can consume other foods like the wild mbuna cichlids.

Some other foods that they consume include insects, invertebrates, fry, scales, eggs, long and short algae. Conversely, they don’t feed on bloodworms as they contain high chitin that can result in bloating.

  • Life cycle

Mbuna live for up to 10 years, at maximum. They grow to 4 – 5 cm long, although the most notable species can grow up to 8cm, while the smaller ones may grow to a maximum of ‘3’.

  • Breeding 

Mbuna species are maternal mouthbrooders, possessing a unique breeding process that is relatively easy and common among the genera. 

They lay eggs after the females take them into the mouth to warm them up and hatch them.

Female mbuna always have eggs in their mouth, and therefore they don’t need to seek protection from predators during the breeding process.

Also, they take off the offspring from the mouth after the hatching process. At this phase, the offspring are called fry.

  • Mating 

Mature pairs of opposite Mbuna cichlids genders can live comfortably in the rock to accomplish the breeding process. However, a small tank may result in a territorial fight among them.

Different species of mbuna can mate and cross-breed and produce the first phase of offspring, known as fry.

  • Characteristics

-The care level of Mbuna cichlids range from medium to complex.

-One of the common diseases that can easily affect them is the Malawi bloat.

-They exhibit some form of aggressive temperament even in Lake Malawi and wild habitats, although they have assertive social behavior.

2. Usipa

Another fish species residing in Lake Malawi is Usipa, the most abundant small pelagic fish belonging to the non-cichlid species of fish.

The category of usipa is cyprinid, a group of freshwater fish, which includes the true minnows, the carps, and the relatives of the fish family, such as barbells and barbs.

  • Classification and scientific name 

Usipa is cyprinid fishes that belong to the family of Cyprinidae, small sardine-like fish, commonly called the minnow or carp family occurring in large shoals.

The scientific name of usipa is Engraulicypr Sardella or Engraulicypris, otherwise spelled as Engraulicyprisardella. 

  • Habitat

Usipa is an inshore fish that prefer a natural habitat, purely freshwater in the lakes, river, swamps, or reservoirs. 

  • Economic importance

Malawians, and Mozambiqians, alongside the people of nsima ugali, exploit usipa sustainably.

These people rely upon this fish for an economic livelihood because it yields a lot of income for many households. 

  • Feeding 

They feed in plankton, a diverse collection of marine drifters, water organisms carried along by currents and tides.

  • Growth of usipa

An average usipa fish species grow to the maximum length of 130mm.

  • Characteristics

-Use prefers a bright environment which makes it seek out illumination when it gets dark.

-Are usually active in the daytime.

-Usipa swims in a massive number near the lake surface area

3. Mcheni

Mcheni is the local name for rhamphochromis species, gutted fresh fish that mainly reside in the northern part of Lake Malawi.

Rhamphochromis species of fish, mcheni, is among the largest species of fish belonging to the cichlids.

  • Other places in Africa where the fish reside

The fish endemic to Lake Malawi also inhabit other regions in Africa, including Lake Chilingali, Lake Malombe, upper Shire River, and Chia Lagoon.

  • Length of Machine

Machine species can grow up to 11 – 18 inches, equivalent to 28 to 45 cm. 

  • Scientific classification

Type species: Hemichromis longiceps

Family: Cichlidae

Class: Actinopterygii

Kingdom: Animalia

Phylum: Chordata

Order: Cichliformes

Tribe: Haplochromini

Genus: Rhamphochromis

  • Habitat

Mcheni is a very fierce fish having its principal dwelling place in the basin of Lake Malawi.

  • Feeding

They are carnivorous animals, also known as piscivores, which primarily feed on small fishes such as the small utaka cichlids, small usipa, and lake sardines.

  • Physical features and characteristics

– They have golden-silver or silver color and are mainly elongated in shape; sometimes, their fins appear yellow, particularly the anal and pelvic fins. 

– Also, they have dark horizontal lines along their body. 

– They cruise offshore in a group.

4. Matemba

Matemba is a Tanganyika sardine; it is also called kapenta. This species of fish lies in Lake Malawi. 

The fish is of two species, namely (Lake Tanganyika sardine, Limnothrissa miodon, and Lake Tanganyika sprat, Stolothrissa tanganicae).

 The two species of Matemba fish are all small.

  • Classification 

Matemba or Kapenta species of fish belongs to the Clupeidae family, while its class is Actinopterygii and its Genus is Limnothrissa.

Again the Matemba belongs to the Limnothrissa miodon species.

  • Feeding 

The fish feeds on copepods and potential jellyfish

  • Length of the Matemba

Matemba has an estimated length of 1 7cm, and it is also about 10 cm long.

  • Other places you can get the Matemba

Apart from Malawi, you can also get the species of fish in Zambia and Zimbabwe.

5. Utaka

Utaka is a general name or term used to describe open water-dwelling cichlids found in Lake Malawi. 

It is widespread in Lake Malawi offshore, serving as food to other fishes.

  • Classification of Utaka

The fish species belongs to the Copadichromis and Mchenga genera

  • Physical appearance 

The fish species are neutral or sometimes grey until they mature, making it possible for easy identification.

  • Habitat 

They mainly inhabit near the rocks along the lake’s offshore, fringes and bottom.

  • Feeding and growth

All the several fish species categorized under utaka mainly feed on plankton (marine drifters) to grow up to the length of 10 to 20 centimeters.

6. Kampango

The Kampango, otherwise known as the Kampoyo, is a predatory catfish endemic to Lake Malawi. 

  • Habitat of the Kampango

The Kampango species, like other species of fish, can be found close to rocks in the water that is less shallow to about 50 m, equivalent to 160ft.

Also, this species of fish makes sandy or muddy bottom their habitat too.

  • Scientific classification 

Kampango belongs to the Animalia kingdom, the Chordata phylum, and the Actinopterygii class, in the Binomial meridionalis species, the Siluriformes order, and Bagridae family.

  • Features/physical appearance

The adult species of this fish are usually overall blackish, while young are grey with dark spots.

  • Length 

One unique thing about the height of this species of fish is that the female is usually longer than the male.

It’s among the largest fish in the Lake Malawi basin, growing up to 3.3 ft or 4.9 ft long, equivalent to 1 or 1.5 meters, respectively, although the standard length is 1.4 ft (42cm). 

  • Feeding 

The primary food of this species of fish is cichlids.

  • Breeding and care

During the breeding stage of the kampango, the male digs a shallow nest in the sandy bottom, primarily close to rocks, and the female lays several thousand eggs.

After the eggs hatch, the young ones feed on the unfertilized eggs that the female ones lay and the invertebrates that the male ones bring to them by mouth.

The male and female carefully protect the eggs and their young ones. The young species of this fish only leave the protection of the adult when they reach around 12 cm (4.7 inches) long.

7. Chambo

Chambo species is another species of fish you can find in Lake Malawi, residing in Nkhatabay, Rumphi, Likoma Island, Mangochi, and Salima.

The English name of this fish species is oreochromine cichlid, while the local name is Chambo.

  • Habitat 

Chambo dwells mostly in shallow waters less than 50 m deep.

  • Classification 

The fish species belong to the family of Cichlidae, the genus of Oreochromis, and the species of Oreochromis lidole.

8. Sanjika

Also, in Lake Malawi, you can find the sanjika fish, an African freshwater fish.

  • Other places you can get the Sanjika

One can get this species of fish in Mozambique and the Zambezi River.

  • Scientific classification 

The Sanjika belongs to the Animalia kingdom, in Chordata phylumclass Actinopterygii from the family of Cyprinidae, and the subfamily of Danioninae.

Again, the genera for the sanjika fish is Opsaridium in the species of O. tweddleorum.

9. Mpasa

Mpasa, otherwise called Lake Salmon, is another fish species that you can find in Lake Malawi.

It’s a drab fish and a species of African freshwater fish which its population is currently reducing due to human impact (using it for firewood and food).

While mpasa is a lake salmon, according to some descriptions, others have a different concept that it’s neither a full-time lake species nor a salmon.

Synonymous names for mpasa

In 1864, a German-British ichthyologist, Albert Günther, named the fish Pelotrophus microlepis, after which he gave it another name, Barilius microlepis. Then, again, Albert Boulenger, called it Barilius tanganicae in 1900.

  • Habitat

Mpasa dwells mostly in rivers and freshwater lakes.

  • Other African countries where Mpasa reside

Aside from Lake Malawi, you can find this fish in Mozambique and Tanzania too.

  • Scientific Classification

Kingdom: Animalia

Species: O. microlepis

Family: Cyprinidae

Subfamily: Danioninae

Phylum: Chordata

Class: Actinopterygii

Order: Cypriniformes

Genus: Opsaridium

  • Features of mpasa fish

– Mpasa is silver in color, resembling the trout fish in the Salmonidae family.

– Normally, they grow up to the total length of 47 cm and mainly weighs 4kg

-Juvenile mpasa possesses dark vertical bars along the body, which fade away as they grow, while the adults are plain colored.

10. Chambo

Chambo is the local name for Oreochromis lidole, a silvery bodies freshwater tilapia fish and the most popular, favored fish belonging to the cichlids. 

It is native to Lake Malawi, Tanzania, or Mozambique and encompasses a few kinds of large cichlids which grow up to 30 cm in length, possessing vertical bars on t lower parts of the dorsal fins. 

Generally, their length ranges from 17 to 20cm, and they also live in the Shire River, Lake Malombe, and maybe other crater lakes further north of the continent.

Other names of chambo are tilapia lidole (1941) and Sarotherodon in 1976.

  • Classification

The binomial name for chambo is Oreochromis lidole, and the scientific classification include;

Species: O. lidole

Genus: Oreochromis

Class: Actinopterygii

Order: Cichliformes

Family: Cichlidae

Kingdom: Animalia

Phylum: Chordata

  • Habitat

Most of them inhabit offshore on Lake Malawi, while you can easily find others at the weedy point in the river.

  • Feeding 

Their main diets are plankton, including crustaceans like Diaptomus and Bosmina; diatoms such as Surirella and Aulacoseira. Also, they feed on other extensive algae.

  • Characteristics

Oreochromis lidole, locally called chambo, usually swim in a group around the lake or the kind of water they inhabit.

11. Mlamba

It is the smaller version of the Chikuta catfish structure, preferring an environment similar to Matemba.

Mlamba or African sharptooth catfish is the most common catfish in Lake Malawi, possessing a slippery, smooth, and scaleless body. 

  • Habitat

African sharptooth catfish are widespread across Africa and the Middle East, residing in swamps, rivers, freshwater lakes, and even human-made habitats, like urban sewage systems or oxidation ponds.

  • Classification

Mlamba belongs to the Clarias gariepinus, also called African sharptooth catfish.


Genus: Clarias

Order: Siluriformes

Phylum: Chordata

Class: Actinopterygii

Species: C. gariepinus

Family: Clariidae

Kingdom: Animalia

  • Length

Although they can grow up to 50 cm, their average length ranges between 20 to 30 cm, making it the second-largest African fish in size.

  • Feeding

African sharptooth catfish, Clarias gariepinus or Mlamba feeds on living organisms, dead organisms, and animal matter.

  • Characteristics

– Like many other catfishes, mlamba is a nocturnal fish, large in size and eel-like, usually possessing black coloration or dark gray on the back.

The back coloration fades to a white belly as they mature into adults.

-Other physical features of the fish species include flat bony heads, slender bodies, broad, terminal mouths comprising four barbels. 

– Mlamba species have large accessory respiratory organs, which include modified gill arches. 

– Notably, there are spines that they possess only on the pectoral fins.

Other fish species that are endemic to Lake Malawi

Aside from the species mentioned above, catfishes such as Bombe and many others are also native to lake Malawi. Again, various cyprinid fishes, such as Nchila and Ning, reside regularly in the lake.

What is the biggest fish in Lake Malawi?

“Mcheni” (Rhamphochromis species) is the biggest species of fish native to Lake Malawi.

How many species of fish are in Lake Malawi?

The fish species in Lake Malawi are more than 1000; thus, some scientists say that the lake may contain over 2000 species because they discover new species daily. 

Which lake has the best fish in Malawi?

Lake Malawi in East Africa, the 5th largest lake by volume and the 9th largest by area worldwide, has the best fish in the country.

How many species of cichlids are in Lake Malawi?

More than 600 cichlids species reside in Lake Malawi, although some folks say it may contain over 700 cichlids.

Does Malawi Lake have sharks?

Apparently no, there is no shark in Lake Malawi. Instead, it contains the largest species of fish than any other lake around the world.

Bottom Line

While some travel to Africa to spot the ‘big 5’, other wildlife, and natural conservancies, aquarium enthusiasts and others in the know visit to see the world’s most assorted and precious freshwater lake, the inimitable Lake Malawi, for its unique species of fish.

Whether you are yet to explore Lake Malawi or otherwise, you can have the basic knowledge of its distinct fish species that you can’t see at any other lake around the world.

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