Freshwater Fish

Red Empress Cichlid (Protomelas taeniolatus): Aquarium Care Guide

The Red Empress Cichlid is a great freshwater fish for aquarists of all experience levels. They are always one of our top picks for people who want a non-aggressive cichlid or an aesthetically pleasing species.

But their temperament is not the main reason so many people love this species. The real attraction is its beauty.

These fish are absolutely stunning. The bright, vibrant colors that gradually change across their bodies are a must see in person.

We’ve heard from countless owners who say they can’t get enough when it comes to looking at these fish (even if they’ve owned them for years).

This guide will lay out the essentials of caring for Red Empress Cichlids. You will learn all about the species and how to keep them happy and healthy.

Species Summary

The red empress cichlid is a visually striking fish that can add vibrant color to your aquarium. Scientifically, these fish are known as Protomelas taeniolatus. However, to aquarists, they are known as the Red Empress Cichlid or the Spindle Hap.

Take a look at these fish and you will understand their colorful name. They are known for their dazzling colors, which can vary drastically from fish to fish.

Native to Lake Malawi in Africa, the red empress cichlid has become a fan favorite (as has its relative, the African cichlid). While most cichlids are known for exhibiting aggressive behavior, Red Empress Cichlids are a unique outlier. They are relatively docile and will spend their days swimming all over the tank.

Not only that, but these fish are easy to care for. They are hardy and can live comfortably in a variety of conditions. Red Empress Cichlids have their own unique challenges, but the work you will put into caring for these fish is well worth it in the end.

Life expectancy

In captivity, the average lifespan of a Red Empress Cichlid is 5 years. However, these fish may live 7-10 years with proper care.

Many factors will influence the lifespan of a fish. These include water quality, diet, and the environment. This applies to any species, no matter how hardy they may be.


Aesthetics is where the Red Empress Cichlid really shines.

Despite the female name, most Red Empress Cichlids you see in aquariums are not female.The male fish are the ones with the vibrant hues.

Generally, adult males will take on a reddish-orange color. Distinctive markings in blue, yellow, and brown are also relatively common.

There are even some special Red Empress fish that were purposely bred for the most vibrant color possible. If you look closely, you can even see faint horizontal lines and irregular oval shapes under its scales on the body.

But what’s really unique about the Red Empress Cichlid is that coloration can vary based on location.

Fish that live in certain parts of Lake Malawi may take on a different color pattern than most are used to.

There are red empress cichlids with shades of gold, blue, orange, and more. Some of those fish even have local names to help people in the area distinguish where they came from.

The females, unfortunately, do not have the same coloration as the adult males. They are more tenuous, acquiring a silver color. Like the males, the females have two horizontal lines and some irregular ovals on the body.

Speaking of their bodies, these fish have a few features that help their profile stand out. First, the anal, dorsal, pectoral, and caudal fins are quite long. They have an angled shape, which helps to swim in the wild.

Each fin also has spiny rays. They can become quite sharp, which helps these fish ward off predators. The front of the fins are a bit softer to make navigating through the water a breeze.

Like other cichlids, the Red Empress has two sets of teeth. One is located just inside her mouth. The second set is further back in the throat.


The average size of the Red Empress Cichlid is between 4.5 and 6 inches in length, which is reasonably large. In the wild, it is much more common for these fish to reach the upper limits of that range. Captive fish, however, generally remain on the smaller end of the size spectrum.

Red empress cichlids typically reach sexual maturity at 8 to 9 months. Most fish will continue to grow after that point until they reach full size. Its growth rate is quite average for freshwater fish.

Author’s Note: If you want your Red Empress Cichlid to grow as large as possible, it is important to provide a large tank. If they have a lot of space, they are much more likely to keep growing.

Red Empress Cichlid Care

For the most part, Red Empress Cichlids are easy to care for. While some cichlid fish are known to be a handful, that is not the case with the Red Empress. They are hardy, non-aggressive and have a flexible diet.

All that said, it’s still important that you provide the right care. Red Empress Cichlids need good care to reach their full potential. Here is information on Red Empress Cichlid care that you need to know.

tank size

We recommend a tank size of at least 75 gallons for a single Red Empress Cichlid.You may be able to get away with 55 gallons if your fish are smaller, but we don’t recommend it.

If space is not an issue and you want to maximize your size, health, and happiness, you should go for a 100-gallon tank.

If you plan on having more than one red empress cichlid in your tank, you may need more than 200 gallons.

In general, cichlids are a type of fish that need a lot of room to grow. Red Empress Cichlids, in particular, are avid swimmers. Without a sizeable tank, you may encounter stress and health complications.

water parameters

Due to the unique properties of their natural habitat, Red Empress Cichlids require slightly alkaline water. The water they come from is highly mineralized. These fish can tolerate some salt, but you should not put them in completely brackish water.

While they are hardy, water quality is of the utmost importance when caring for Red Empress Cichlids. When it comes to water chemistry, the lake they come from is surprisingly stable.

  • Water temperature: 73 to 82 degrees Fahrenheit (sweet spot is around 76 degrees)
  • pH levels: 7.7 to 8.6
  • Water hardness: 5 to 15 dGH

Author’s Note: Adhering to a strict water condition monitoring regimen is the best way to keep these fish healthy and thriving. To prevent quality deterioration, a 10 to 20 percent water change every week is recommended.

The exact changes you’ll need to make depend on the size of the tank, the number of fish you have, and waste production.

What to put in your tank

Before you introduce Red Empress Cichlids to your tank, you need to properly prepare it for your needs.

First, let’s review filtration and water flow. In their natural habitat, Red Empress Cichlids are exposed to a lot of water movement. The water from which they come is fed by several streams that continually churn the water.

Investing in a high-quality pump can ensure that the water in your intake is constantly moving.

Powerful filtration systems are also a must. These fish are known to produce a lot of waste. If the filters are not enough to keep up with the by-products of the fish, you risk experiencing significant chemical changes. This could cause stress and disease in the fish.

As for the decoration, it is preferred to simulate the natural environment of the fish. Cover the bottom of the tank with a thick layer of fine sand.

Red empress cichlids like to sift through the sand for food. It’s where most of your protein comes from. Large gravel is not conducive to their feeding habits. Also, it could physically harm the fish.

Fill the tank with lots of rocks and wood. The trick is to give your fish places to hide when they feel threatened or scared. In the wild, red empress cichlids usually stick to the part of the lake where the rocks meet the sand.

While they enjoy swimming freely in the wild, these fish will not stray too far from rocks. It presents itself as a potential cover when predators approach. Providing that simulated experience in a tank is always a good idea.

You can also use some upright rocks and smooth flat rocks. The latter will come in handy if you ever want to breed your fish.

Plants are also a good option. Unlike other fish, Red Empress Cichlids will not destroy vegetation. They are also not prone to digging, so your plants can thrive without a problem.

Regardless of what you decide to put in your tank, it’s important to make sure there’s enough room for them to swim. Keep the bottom and middle areas of the tank relatively sterile so your fish can swim without encountering obstacles.

Possible common diseases

Red Empress Cichlids are not immune to common freshwater diseases. Fish can experience Ich. The highly contagious disease causes conspicuous white spots on fish. If left untreated, it can be fatal.

There are several ways to treat Ich. Some aquarists prefer to raise the water temperature up to 86 degrees Fahrenheit for a few days. Others go straight to copper-based medicine. Regardless of the method you choose, it is always a good idea to quarantine infected fish as soon as possible.

In addition to Ich, Red Empress Cichlids can suffer from common aquarium diseases such as bacterial infections, parasites, and fungal infections.

There is a problem that many species of freshwater fish do not experience. Malawi Bloat is a condition that causes a visibly swollen abdomen, loss of appetite, and other uncomfortable symptoms. It can affect Malawi cichlids such as the Red Empress. It is usually caused by a poor diet.

Food and Diet

So what are you supposed to feed these fish? Well, we’re happy to report that Red Empress Cichlids are omnivores. In the wild, they feed on algae attached to rocks. Captive fish will do the same, so having rocks in the tank is important.

The protein is usually collected by sieving the sand. You can feed your fish with spirulina-based flakes. High-protein snacks like krill can be fed periodically.

Red Empress Cichlids are prone to overeating. It is better to provide multiple small meals throughout the day than large meals.

Author’s Note: Overfeeding beautiful fish like this is quite common because people like to see them active or show them off to their friends. Don’t rely on feeding as a way to get better vision, just be patient!

behavior and temperament

For the most part, Red Empress Cichlids are peaceful. They prefer to mind their own business when possible.

Although these fish can attack others, it is quite rare. By following our tank recommendations and having plenty of hiding spots and plenty of room to swim, you can significantly reduce your chances of aggression.

Red Empress Cichlid Tank Mates

While peaceful, red empress cichlids are not considered a community fish. They get along well with similar species.

The best tank mates for these fish are other Red Empress Cichlids. Most aquarists will keep them in groups of one male with three females. Avoid having multiple male fish in one tank. This could lead to aggression.

You can also have other Malawi Cichlids in the same tank. However, you need to make sure your tank is large enough for each fish to have its own space.

Here are some good tank mates for the Red Empress Cichlid.

  • blood parrot cichlid
  • Livingstoni Cichlids
  • Venustus Cichlids
  • pictus catfish
  • rope fish


Breeding red empress cichlids is not too difficult. These fish have a long history of captive breeding. Like other cichlids, they are mouthbrooders. The breeding process is quite fascinating.

The male will initiate breeding by choosing a clear spot on the sand or flat rock. He will then chase the females until one follows him to his chosen spot. At this point, the male will shake himself upright.

The female then lays around 40 to 50 eggs and collects them with her mouth. She will then collect sperm from the male for fertilization.

Red Empress Cichlid eggs take 3 to 4 weeks to hatch. During the entire gestation period, the eggs are kept in the female’s mouth.

Red empress cichlids tend to exhibit signs of paternity. Both males and females will protect the fry after they hatch. They will keep them protected until they are ready to swim freely on their own.

final thoughts

The Red Empress Cichlid is one of our favorite freshwater species. In our opinion, its beauty can only be matched by a handful of other fish.

They are also excellent fish to keep in your aquarium. The Red Empress Cichlid is quite peaceful and will rarely cause any trouble in your tank.

Generous water parameters and hardness are other things homeowners can appreciate. It is always good to have peace of mind knowing that your fish is not fragile.

We highly recommend this species if you are looking for a beautiful low maintenance freshwater fish. Once you see them swimming around in your tank, you’ll be glad you got them!

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