Red Empress Cichlid: The Ultimate Guide

image of Feeding your Red empress cichlid (scientific name protomelas taeniolatus)

Have you seen the red empress for sale at your local aquarium store and wondered if it’s a good fish for you?

The red empress cichlid is a very common and popular cichlid in the aquarium trade for good reason.

You see, they have lovely colors, are not difficult to keep healthy, display fascinating behavior, and can help to keep your aquarium free of algae.

Here’s what you need to know about how to care for this interesting fish and ensure that they thrive in your tank.

What is the Red Empress Cichlid?

image of Red empress cichlid (scientific name protomelas taeniolatus)

The Red empress cichlid (scientific name protomelas taeniolatus) is one of the most unique and beautiful cichlids in the hobby. They may also be known as the Malawi cichlid. They have lovely colors in varying levels of red and blue.

Turns out, they tend to be quite hardy and aren’t as aggressive as many other types of African cichlid. Their stunning looks and laid-back temperament make them extremely popular cichlids.

Protomelas taeniolatus is native to Eastern Africa, specifically Lake Malawi. In the wild, they prefer clear water and rocky terrain.

They’re typically found in areas of fairly shallow water, where they graze on algae and occasionally nibble on invertebrates.

  • Size. In our experience, red empress typically grows to be about 5 or 6in long, although they may get bigger under perfect conditions in captivity.
  • Lifespan. And the good news? You can enjoy your red empress for up to 5 years, although you can sometimes have them for as many as 7 to 10 years with great care.


Turns out, these cichlids come in some very striking colors. Different varieties offer different levels of red and blue.

As the fish gets older, colors may fade somewhat, taking on more of a reddish-orange hue. However, they generally maintain attractive colors throughout their lives.

Best of all, many have faint horizontal lines and interesting oval shapes underneath the overall color.

But wait, let me tell you something. It is the male red empress that shows the most impressive colors.

Turns out, the female Empress can also be very attractive, but won’t be as colorful. She will have more grey tones.

Red Empress Varieties

This cichlid is so popular and common in the aquarium trade. No wonder a couple of morphs have been developed.

There is a morph that still has red on it but offers more blue coloration, known as Blue Fire. The Super Red Empress has been line bred in Europe to create more red coloration. What does this mean for you?

The Super Red Empress is beautiful. On the other hand, line breeding may have reduced the genetic variability, making these fish slightly less healthy.

Turns out, the common red empress that is more readily available in America has a balance of red and blue color and is very similar to the wild variety.

And that’s just one side of the story…in their native habitat of Lake Malawi in Africa, you can find even more variety.

The color of these fish varies by what part of Lake Malawi they are indigenous to. Turns out, in some areas, these fish have more gold color, more orange, and other varieties.

In our experience, you are unlikely to find these varieties in aquarium store stock outside of Africa.

Caring for the Red Empress Cichlid

image of caring for Red empress cichlid (scientific name protomelas taeniolatus)

The Red Empress is one of the tropical freshwater fish that is best for beginners. It is relatively easy to create their ideal habitat and keep them healthy.

As if that’s not enough, they maintain a gorgeous colorful appearance throughout their lives. Here’s what you need to know to care for this gorgeous empress.

Tank Size

Turns out, the biggest impediment to keeping this cichlid for beginners is the tank size that is required for them. The red empress cichlid does best in an aquarium of at least 75 gallons.

Your fish will thank you if you can go as high as 100 gallons. On the other hand, if you want to keep more than one red empress cichlid, you’ll need a tank as large as 200 gallons.

Any smaller, and you are cichlid won’t grow properly. Furthermore, they will be very stressed and unable to move around the way they like.

By now, you should see that Malawi cichlids are a species that likes to swim around a lot. Therefore, they need a substantial quantity of water in a large tank size in which to swim.

Water Parameters

Like other African cichlids, the red empress requires more alkaline water than most other tropical fish species. Turns out, there are a lot of minerals in Malawi, where they come from.

You see, they are much more tolerant of salt than most other tropical fish. On the other hand, you don’t want to put them in full brackish water either.

Here are the freshwater conditions that are ideal for protomelas taeniolatus:

  • Temperature. 73 to 82 degrees Fahrenheit so, ideally around 76 degrees Fahrenheit
  • pH. 7.7 to 8.6
  • Water Hardness: 5 to 15 dGH

Although the Red Empress tends to be pretty hardy and can handle a range of parameters, Malawi is very stable. What does that mean for you?

It is very important that conditions do not vary too much. A large tank size helps contribute to stable water conditions.

In case you might be asking yourself what else you can do to provide stable conditions, here are a few suggestions:

  • Allow the tank to cycle before adding fish. It can be hard to wait around with an empty tank and some rock before you begin adding fish, but this is very important. You see, allowing the tank to cycle enables beneficial bacteria to develop and tank conditions to stabilize.
  • Add other fish first. If there are any inhabitants of the tank that you would like to add that are not as susceptible to changes in water parameters, add them first. Allow the tank to cycle for some time with these fish in it.
  • Monitor conditions regularly. Even in large tanks, you may be surprised by how quickly freshwater conditions can change. Therefore, in our experience, it is good to test water conditions at least weekly.
  • Perform water changes. It’s best to perform a water change of 10 to 20% every week. Very large tanks may be able to get away with going longer between changes.

Water Movement

Turns out, in their native Malawi, protomelas taeniolatus live in water conditions with quite a lot of movement. Streams are constantly emptying into the lake, stirring the water and providing a lot of flow.

As if that’s not enough, powerful filtration is also important because the red empress cichlid can deposit a lot of waste into the aquarium.

What does this mean for you? You will want a strong filtration system.

In larger tanks, the filter pump may not be strong enough to move water sufficiently. In such cases, we have found that additional pumps to provide stronger flow are a good idea.

Set up the pumps so that water moves continuously through the aquarium. Simply put, you don’t want many stagnant areas.

On the other hand, if you have other fish in the aquarium which require areas of lower flow, you can use rocks to create shelter for them. However, relatively high flow is necessary for the red empress.

If other tank inhabitants need much lower flow, compatibility with the Red Empress may not be good.

Decorating the Tank


image of sand for protomelas taeniolatus

The red empress cichlid likes to sift through sand to find food. What does this mean for you? You will appreciate how nice and clean the sand stays thanks to this sifting process.

On the other hand, it’s important to choose fine sand rather than large gravel for the bottom of the tank. Large gravel won’t allow normal feeding and can even injure your fish.

In our experience, it is also important to leave plenty of send area free for your red empress to sift. Don’t cover the entire area with rocks and plants.


image of rocks for protomelas taeniolatus

On the other hand, the red empress cichlid does enjoy quite a lot of rocks in their tank. In the wild, the red empress prefers rocky areas where the sand meets the rock.

What does this mean for you? You want to replicate this environment in your aquarium.

In our experience, a good way to do it is to place lots of rocks on one side of the tank and leave a sandy area on the other.

And that’s just one side of the story, you can also place rocks against the back of the tank to form an attractive backdrop and leave sand at the front.


image of plants for protomelas taeniolatus

Turns out, unlike many cichlids, the red empress will not destroy plants in your tank. Although they sift through the sand, they are not big diggers.

What does this mean for you? You can enjoy placing a variety of plants in the aquarium.

Best of all, plants can help reduce the quantity of waste produced by the red empress cichlid. This means that you will have better water quality.

On the other hand, make sure that you still leave plenty of sand available for your red empress cichlid to sift through. A good solution is to plant along the border of the rocks.

Feeding your Red Empress Cichlid

image of Feeding your Red empress cichlid (scientific name protomelas taeniolatus)

Turns out, the red empress is an omnivore. They enjoy algae and invertebrates.

However, these fish can be aggressive eaters. Think about it: with too much food, they can become overweight and prone to illness.

Turns out, spirulina-based flakes and protein-rich krill are good options in addition to your red empress cichlid grazing on algae on your rocks.

On the other hand, your red empress will also search for scraps that you feed to other fish. Adjust your feeding depending on what other inhabitants of the aquarium there are.

You see, your red empress cichlid will do a good job of finding whatever other fish miss in the sand.

Tankmates and Behavior

image of protomelas taeniolatus tankmates and behavior

Turns out, the red empress cichlid is quite peaceful, especially compared to other cichlid species. However, males are not tolerant of other males.

In our experience, if you want to keep more than one red empress cichlid, it’s best to keep one male to several females.

You can also keep just one red empress cichlid in your aquarium. They do not need to be kept in groups.

You see, the red empress cichlid does well with other fish from Malawi.

  • Blood parrot cichlids,
  • Venustus cichlids,
  • Ropefish,
  • Pictus catfish,
  • And livingstoni cichlids all have great compatibility with the red empress.


image of protomelas taeniolatus breeding

Since protomelas taeniolatus is so common in aquariums far from their country of origin, it should come as no surprise that they are not extremely difficult to breed in captivity. Nevertheless, they do have some particular demands.

Like many other cichlids, this species is a mouthbrooder. This makes them fascinating to watch during breeding.

You see, males choose a spot in the sand or on a flat rock. They then chase the females until one follows him to his spot.

He will shake in a vertical position and the female will lay around 45 eggs. The female then picks up the eggs and collects sperm from the male to fertilize them.

Turns out, the female keeps the eggs in her mouth throughout the entire gestation period of around three to four weeks.

Both parents protect the fry until they are ready to swim on their own. Simply put, this makes it quite easy for you as the aquarium keeper.

All you have to do is take good care of your fish until the fry are swimming freely and then separate them.

Enjoy the Red Empress Cichlid

The Red Empress Cichlid is an absolutely fascinating freshwater fish that thrives with good care. By now, you should realize that they are very interesting to watch as well as being quite beautiful. Provided you have a large enough tank, you will likely take a lot of pleasure in keeping this fish.

image of Enjoy the Red Empress Cichlid (scientific name protomelas taeniolatus)


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