Red Empress Cichlid Care: Tank Setup, Mates, Diet & Breeding

If you like colorful cichlids, there’s one fish you need to meet. The red empress cichlid has it all!

Great color, markings, and looks, and that’s not where the story ends! These fish are also relatively peaceful (for African cichlids anyway) and easy to care for with the right knowledge.

These regal fish have a slightly confusing name, given that the male has all the colors.

Male of Protomelas taeniolatus also known as red empress cichlid swimming in aquarium

Read on to learn more interesting facts and the information you need to know before introducing this species to your aquarium.

At a Glance

Min tank size 75 gal (300 l)
Temperament Semi-aggressive
Group size 4+
Temperature 75-82°F (24-28°C)
pH 7.6-8.6
Lifespan 5-10 years
Size 6 inches (15 cm)

Natural Habitat

The red empress cichlid (Protomelas taeniolatus) is native to lake Malawi where it inhabits rocky areas down to a depth of around 30 feet (9 m).

It is widespread in the lake but under pressure from local fishermen around some islands due to local fishing activities.

Size & Description

The red empress is also known as the spindle hap, and they can grow to about 6 inches (15 cm).

They are cichlids from the haplochromine group. This group of African cichlids is known for relatively dull-colored females and juveniles.

On the other hand, the males are spectacular fish that display just about every color of the rainbow.

Male red empress cichlids are larger than females and have longer fins. They are predominantly red and blue with a neon blue head.

The fins of the male are also marked with beautiful and intricate patterns, including an iridescent strip along the top edge of the dorsal fin.

The female is attractive in her own right, with little color but great markings.

She typically has one or two dark horizontal lines along her sides and sometimes a few other blotches and bars.

Red Empress Varieties

Breeders have developed some amazing varieties of this species through selective breeding.

The super red empress is one such fish, and boy do they live up to their name! There are a few other options too, like:

  • Blue fire
  • Super red empress.


The red empress is a relatively peaceful African cichlid. Males will defend their territory against any other fish in the breeding season though, so be ready for some aggression.


Keep only one male in a tank unless you have a very large aquarium of hundreds of gallons.

You can keep a single male or a small harem of these fish.

Keep at least 3 or 4 females with your male if you would prefer to keep a group or potentially even breed these fish. This is for the sake of the females because the male can be very persuasive and aggressive and will harass them.

Tank Setup

The right tank setup will bring out the best in your red empress cichlid. Let’s take a look at how to set up a great aquarium for these super cichlids.

Tank size

The red empress cichlid needs a large tank to be truly happy.

55 gallons (200 l) would be the absolute minimum for this species, although a larger tank of 75-100 gallons (300-400 l) would be better. After all, you want your fish to thrive, not just survive.

Substrate and Decor

The red empress cichlid lives in rocky areas in the wild. You should try to recreate the rocky habitat in your aquarium to make these fish feel at home.

Create some caves and hiding spaces where your fish can hide out. This could be really important for fish that are getting too much attention from a dominant male.

These fish will search the bottom of the tank for food, so lay down a substrate of fine sand to allow them to forage safely.


A good filtration system is essential for maintaining the excellent water quality that your fish need.

Red empress cichlids do not mind some water movement in their tanks, and this can improve the performance of your filtration system.

A good quality canister filter that is rated to process at least five times the volume of your tank every hour is ideal. For a 75 gallon tank (300 l), this would mean a flow rate of at least about 400 gallons per hour.

Many cichlid keepers also use a dedicated sump system beneath their tanks. This allows them to keep the actual display tank compact while increasing the volume of water in the system.

You can also install a small submersible powerhead or wavemaker to create some flow. This is only necessary if your filtration system is leaving dead spots in the tank with no movement.


Your red empress cichlids do not require any specialized lighting. Pick up an LED or fluorescent aquarium light that is suitable for your aquarium size.

They will, of course, appreciate a natural daylight period of 8 to 10 hours per day. So make sure your lights are set on a timer to keep the hours consistent.

Water Preferences

Red empress cichlids prefer alkaline water, just like other fish from lake Malawi.

The pH of your water should be in the range of 7.6-8.6, and your water hardness should be between 10-25 dGH.

These stunning fish prefer high alkalinity but not high salinity, so don’t make the mistake of keeping them in brackish water.

They prefer water temperatures in the range between 75°F and 82°F (24-28°C).

Tank Mates and Compatibility

Female of Protomelas taeniolatus also known as red empress African cichlid swimming in aquarium with other cichlids

Choosing the right tankmates for African cichlids is very important. You can keep red empress cichlids with other African haplochromine cichlids like:

Other African cichlids aren’t the only suitable tank mates, however. You can also try the following South American species:

Food & Diet

Red empress cichlids feed on algae and invertebrates that they graze from rock surfaces and sift from the sandy lake floor.

It seems like these are always hungry! Well, don’t give in to their begging because these greedy fish will become overweight in no time at all.

Try to feed them 3 or 4 times a day, but limit the food you provide to what they can finish in less than a minute.

Remember, these fish are greedy, and besides, uneaten food spoils water quality!

A spirulina flake is the ideal staple food, but you can supplement this with leafy greens like lettuce and spinach. Blanch these greens by dropping them in boiling water for a minute or so to help them sink in the tank.

These fish are naturally omnivorous, so they do need some higher protein food sources.

Frozen blood worms and brine shrimp are fine for this purpose but feed them sparingly as a supplement rather than an everyday food source.


Red empress cichlids are ready to breed at about nine months of age. They are mouthbrooders, which is typical of African cichlids.

This amazing breeding strategy involves the female holding the eggs and small fry in her own mouth.

She does this through the gestation period and until they are strong enough to swim free.

Breeding Your Red Empress Cichlids

It is certainly possible to breed this species in your own aquarium. This is most likely to be successful in a species-only tank.

Spawning typically occurs on a level surface like a flat rock or in a shallow hollow excavated on the sandy bottom.

Breeding Behavior

The pair will circle each other as the female collects sperm and lays her eggs on the substrate.

The eggs are then collected by the female. She typically cares for them for about three weeks, during which the female’s mouth will look more prominent.

Caring for Fry

The fry will be in great danger when the female releases them to swim in the tank.

If they have any tank mates, it will be safest to move the fry over to their own tank to let them grow.

You can feed your red empress fry with baby brine shrimp.

Hardiness and Diseases

Red empress cichlids are typically hardy and healthy fish, but they are not immune to some common aquarium fish illnesses like:

  • Parasites like Hexamita
  • Bacterial infections
  • Fungal infections.

Maintaining excellent water quality and the parameters your fish prefer is the best way to avoid health issues.

The physical injuries caused by fighting can also cause sickness and disease. This is why stocking the right number, and sex ratio of these fish is so important.

An incorrect diet can also cause a lot of problems with African cichlids, so fight the temptation to feed too much live food and protein-rich snacks.

Closing Thoughts

The red empress is a species that all cichlid enthusiasts should consider stocking. They are priced from about $10 and will provide awesome color and interesting behavior for several years with the right care.

Of course, African cichlids are not fish to add to any old community tank. Make sure to set up a dedicated cichlid tank with appropriate tank mates before bringing home the red empress.

Do you love the red empress cichlid as much as we do?

Let us know about your experiences with these gorgeous fish below!