Mastacembelus shiranus – Malawi Spinyeel

Mastacembelus shiranus is an elongated shaped fish that looks like an eel but they are actually closer related to normal fish than they are to true eels.

Mastacembelus shiranus – Malawi Spinyeel

Mastacembelus shiranus was first decribed by Günther in 1896. In the intervening years, the names Afromastacembelus shiranus and Aethiomastacembelus shiranus have been used. Now it is back to its original name Mastacembelus shiranus. The genus Mastacembelus has around 61 species and belongs to the familie Mastacembelidae (Spiny Eels).

Mastacembelus is derived from two Greek words: “Mastax” means “bite” and “Emballo” means “to throw oneself”


Mastacembelus shiranus is an elongated shaped fish that looks like an eel but they are actually closer related to normal fish than they are to true eels.  Adults can reach a length of around 30 to 40 centimetres.

They have a small head and snout. Right behind their head are the gills and pectoral fins. The dorsal-, anal- and caudal fins are formed as one and run along their back and belly from their head to tail.

The body has a light brown ground colour on top of that they show a dark brown mottled pattern. No visible differences between the sexes are known.

In the wild, the Mastacembelus shiranus is a true schooling fish. You can find them in caves with a couple of them together, in the aquarium they also like to get together in one cave. Although they are schooling fish they will do just fine if you keep them alone. They show no intraspecific aggression.

You can describe Mastacembelus shiranus behaviour as very shy. Often they hide in caves, cracks and crevices. If you keep them together with calm and non-aggressive cichlids they are more likely to come forward.


In and around Lake Malawi Mastacembelus shiranus inhabits the swamps like areas with dense vegetation, they can also be found in de rock scattered shallow parts.

Mastacembelus shiranus have been found in floating pieces of vegetation that broke loose of the swamps. It is presumed the species has spread across the like in this way en this is also the way the more remote populations stay pure by the arrival of fresh blood. Despite this way of spreading, Mastacembelus knows one variety that only differs in its red colouration, the Mastacembelus sp. Rosette.


The aquarium decoration has to contain rocks with lots of caves, cracks and crevices where Mastacembelus shiranus can hide. As bottom substrate, you can use (filter) sand.

Note: Mastacembelus shiranus is a true escape artist. Make sure you keep your aquarium sealed tight. All holes must be sealed to prevent them to escape. Don’t forget your overflow or dry chamber! Even the pomp exhaust must be covered by a fine mesh to prevent the fish from swimming into your pump!


I found no reports of successful spawning methods in the aquarium, a few couples of Spiny Eels reproduced but what triggers them is still unknown. Some experiments were conducted to breed them using hormones but were unsuccessful and more tests were needed.



John de Lange

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John de Lange

Last Updated on 8 October 2021 by John

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