Melanochromis auratus

Common Names: Golden cichlid, gold mbuna, auratus

Type Locality: Monkey Bay, west coast of Lake Malawi

Range: From Jalo Reef southward along the entire west coast down to Crocodile Rocks

Taxonomic Troubles: Originally described in several other genera over the years, including Tilapia and Pseudotropheus.

Size: 13 cm TL (5 inches)

Preferred Water Chemistry: Tropical, hard, and basic

Difficulty: Despite its ubiquity, hardiness, and low price, this is not a species for the novice. It is very difficult to manage aggression in this species.

Tank Setup: Needs a large tank with plenty of rockpiles or other hiding places

Feeding: An algae and aufwuchs grazer

Breeding: Breeds rapidly. It is a polygamous maternal mouthbrooder, like all mbuna

Fish Description

Juveniles, subdominant males, and most females will be golden with black horizontal stripes. A dominant male will be the negative image, with purplish black background and bluish white stripes. The change in color can be accomplished in no more than a couple of days.


A beautiful but highly aggressive cichlid, this species is best managed in a single-species tank with a single male and many females with an abundance of hiding caves. You will obtain this configuration whether you set out to or not. The dominant male will kill all the other males as soon as they start to color up, and some of the females, too. A male auratus will not hesitate to attack any other fish in the tank, even on many times his size. The presence of one in an aquarium will often keep all the other inhabitants from spawning because of his constant harassment. Even the females can be territorial and aggressive; a dominant female will sometimes assume dark coloration. A 55-gallon tank is absolutely minimun--larger will increase the likelihood of success.

Are they worth a fuss? Many aquarists would say so. They are beautiful, and a tank full of them is never dull! Unfortunately, many people are seduced by their beauty and bring some home only to discover a month or two later that they have unleashed a monster on their aquarium. Even if you could keep other species with this one, you shouldn't; they will certainly hybridize with any other Melanochromis, and perhaps even with other genera. In fact, it is common for a male to become "superdominant," keeping all other males of any species from spawning, and spawning with every female in the tank, regardless of a species.

How does such a species survive in the wild? The aggression we witness in our tanks is natural and instinctive; the mayhem that results is not. In the lake, where feeding and breeding territory is in short supply, the fierceness of these little fish serves them well. The targets of their aggression simply run and hide--something they cannot do in an aquarium only 4 or 6 feet long. In the wild, or in a sufficiently large tank such as in a public aquarium, a male auratus will vigorously defend a territory greater in size than most tanks in which they are typically kept. Once an interloper--whether another male or a non-breeding female--vacates the territory, he will cease the chase. In the average aqaurium, the glass stops the retreat too soon. Not understanding why the villain will not leave his territory, the male continues to batter it, quickly beating it to death.