If I was asked to name the species that has the most brilliant and interesting blue color in Lake Malawi, I would be really puzzled. It could be Sciaenochromis fryeri, the electric blue hap; I could also vote for Copadichromis azureus but, surely, Aulonocara mbenji is a very strong candidate. A fantastic deep blue coloration, shining in the head and dorsal fin, a delight to watch. This particular species is characterized by the absence of any egg spots on the anal fin. Rather small and delicate by its tankmates' standards it is neither dominant nor demanding. It is often chased and harassed by the Copadichromis azureus since they have, by coincidence, exactly the same blue coloration. Only shape and the vertical bars differ and this makes life quite difficult for the Aulie. The fish is already 18 cm although the final size in the Lake is recorded to be 14 cm. It seems that a big sized tank, slightly understocked helps it to reach a considerably bigger final size. Will eat anything provided it fits in its mouth. Extra care should be taken while feeding to make sure that it has a chance to eat. Quite suppressed by the much bigger tankmates it feeds last. The pellet size should be smaller than the one you feed the Nimbochromis species (I use the "mini" size for it and the "medium" for the rest). The female (brown / beige with dark vertical bars) will remain much smaller. This fish represents a problem to house in the right environment.
Too peaceful to be housed with mbunas, it is too small to be housed with haplochromines. With mbunas it doesn't stand a chance (especially with Melanochromis sp). Being a rather delicate peaceful fish it stands a better chance to prosper among the non-mbunas, althought the threat is even greater. Upon addition of this particular pair in my tank, I was fortunate to have the net in my hands. Within seconds, the male Nimbochromis polystigma had opened its mouth, taking the female in it. Only the tail was visible. I had to hit it with the net to release the fish. Following that, the fish is OK, but I have doubled the frequency and quantity of feeding to be on the safe side. After 15 days, all fish gradually returned to their normal diets. Spawns very easily. As with all aulonocaras, crossbreeding is a real danger therefore I do not recommend more than one species per tank unless both the male and the female coloration is markedly different. The ideal environment would be with similar size and temperament cichlids but one has to use what's available. A very informative "Fast Facts Sheet" on Aulonocara has been prepared by Francesco, along with a beautiful photo of his wild caught Aulonocara stuartgranti, during his visit in Lake Malawi in 1997. A magnificent close up of the male can be seen in next page.
Close-up shot: 100 ASA film, 300 mm lens, f/11, 1/60 sec, auto-bellows, Sunpack flash unit (GN:36 at 1/8th setting) taped over the lens, shot from a distance of 80 cm. Flash head tilted slightly to avoid reflections from the glass. Hand-held camera.