Above Melanochromis chipokae male. Photo and retouching by Rick Borstein.
Melanochromis chipokae is an attractive Malawian mouthbrooder that exhibits clear sexual dimorphism. Males have a dark grey-blue body color with electric blue highlights to the flanks. Females are just as attractive, exhibiting a bright yellow belly, orange tail and alternating tan and brown stripes that extend into the dorsal fin. (See picture of mouthbrooding female at right) First typed by Johnson in 1975, this fish is often sold under the name Pseudotropheus chipokae.
In the areas where populations exist, it is a common fish indicating evolutionary success.
Melanochromis chipokae is popular aquarium fish, but may not be the best choice for beginners. While it generally stays pretty small, it is a very aggressive fish. Some sites report that aquarium specimens reach 6 inches in captivity, but I have never seen one this big.
NOTE This fish is easy confused with Melanochromis auratus . . . and it happened to me! Fortunately, one of the many thousand of visitors to GCCA corrected me, hence this updated report. Per an email exchange with Brandon (no last name)
The easiest was to tell apart auratus from chipokae is half of the auratus' tail is yellow, they have a round snout for grazing algae, and males are usually a brown color and will usually not exceed 5 inches. Chipokaes have a fully patterned tail, a elongated snout for eating fry, and males are usually a purple black with light blue lines and will exceed the inch mark. The auratus was one of the first cichlids brought here but not chipokae.
Females of both species are nearly impossible to tell apart. My guess is that auratus and chipokae would interbreed if given a chance!
In the lake, Melanochromis chipokae is not bound to any particular habitat. It occurs both in rocky habitats and intermediate zones (rock and sandy).
Melanochromis chipokae is not a recommended fish for the beginner. Although it is hardy, the aggressive nature of this species makes it challenging to keep. Both males and females are aggressive, even at the juvenile stage. I have seen inch long fry fighting! Alpha males quickly kill off rivals and won't hesitate to beat on any females which "aren't in the mood."
In a mixed tank, these fish will quickly take over the lead position in the tank. Despite their small size, they can cause a lot of stress and damage to other fish. Beware!
Despite these dire warnings, by employing the right strategy, this fish can be easily kept and bred. Provide plenty of cover for sub-dominant individuals and females. The tank for these fish should be full of caves, slates, flower pots, plastic plants and anything else you can find to disturb the sight lines of the alpha male and provide cover. Extend the rockwork vertically at least halfway up the tank. Provide a PVC anchored near the water line for stressed individuals.
Melanochromis chipokae is easy to feed. In the lake it is a true omnivore. Reports have found filmentous algae, zooplankton and cichlid fry in the stomachs of wild caught individuals. Provide a good quality cichlid flake and spirulina flake.
Melanochromis chipokae isn't hard to breed, but you must provide shelter for the female. Provide a flat slate near the preferred "home" of the alpha male in the tank. When the female is ripe and ready, she will approach the male. After spawning, if your tank is stuffed with enough rock, she will retreat and hold onto the eggs for about 14 days.
Young females tend not to be reliable holders, mostly due to male aggression. After a couple of spawns, the females get smarter about hiding and become good holders in my opinion. I have netted out brooding females, bagged them, and delivered them with no loss of eggs.
Brood sizes are relatively small-- about 12-18 eggs. I have stripped females both early (after two days) and later (after 10 days) with good success. I fed the fry on freshly hatched baby brine shrimp and transitioned them at two weeks to flake food with no problems. The fry grow fast and at 3 to 4 weeks take on the coloration of the adult female.
Melanochromis chipokae is a fairly inexpensive fish. Adults usually are in the $7 to $10 range.
Melanochromis chipokae is easy to find at pet stores, even large chain stores. It's hardy and pretty and not a shy fish while on display.
Report June 2003 by Rick Borstein