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Tropheops Red Cheek

Golden Tropheops, Pseudotropheus Big eye, Macrophthalmus Red Cheek

Family: Cichlidae Tropheops Sp. Red Cheek, Tropheops tropheops, Golden Tropheops, Pseudotropheus Big eyePseudotropheus tropheops tropheopsPhoto © Animal-World: Courtesy Frank Schneidewind

The Tropheops Red Cheek is a very attractive fish and will create a good color mix in the Mbuna cichlid tank!

The Tropheops Sp. "Red Cheek" Tropheops tropheops (previously Pseudotropheus tropheops tropheops) is small and spunky, and a very pretty African cichlid. It has a great color combination with yellow cheeks on a blue body making it a fine addition to the cichlid aquarium. The females of this species are colorful too. They are all yellow instead of a drab brown or gray color found in a lot of the Mbunas, giving a nice eye-pleasing variety.

This cichlid is know by common names such as Pseudotropheus Big eye, Big Eye, and Golden Tropheops. But their most distinguishing feature is related to the yellow to red color in the area of their cheeks and chin. This has inspired several more names that are used to describe them including Pseudotropheus Tropheops Red Head, Pseudotropheus Tropheops Red Cheek, Tropheops Red Cheek, and Macropthalmus Red cheek. But the most interesting description we've found for them is 'M'kokafodya', from Nick Andreola's article, "Tropheops sp. "red cheek". This is interpreted in the Mbuna language as 'Glowing Fire' or 'Live Coal'.

This is a zebra-type cichlid that belongs to a group called Mbunas. There are 13 genera full of very active and aggressive personalities of Mbuna cichlids. The name Mbuna comes from the Tonga people of Malawi and means "rockfish" or "rock-dwelling". This name aptly describes the environment these fish live in as opposed to being open water swimmers like the Utaka cichlids and other "haps". This cichlid and several similar species were originally part of a large group of cichlids lumped in the Pseudotropheus genus, but it is now recognized in its own genus,Tropheops.

This species is moderate in size, reaching up to about 5 1/2 inches (14 cm) in length, and it has a distinctly blunt, down curved snout. It is also very active, so needs plenty of room. A 40 gallon tank is the minimum for a single specimen, but to keep more will require at least 50 gallons or more.

Keeping a group of these fish makes for a very lively, colorful show aquarium. It will do well in a Mbuna tank, but is not a community specimen that can be housed with fish other than cichlids. They are not demanding and are pretty hardy if their water is kept clean. They are also easy to breed if they are happy. However the males are very aggressive toward the females, especially when breeding. A male needs to be kept with five or more females to help dampen the aggression.

Provide lots of rocks piled up to make caves and crevices for them to explore and to hide in, especially when the male is abusing the females. Arranging the rocks in a manner to make "territories" will help ease aggression, as will keeping them in a large aquarium with other Mbuna species. Success is dependent on the aquarists willingness to do frequent water changes, have sufficient hiding places, and provide appropriate tank mates.

The Mbuna's have been bred in captivity and with all the different hybrids that have been formed, there is no way to tell exactly what you are getting unless it is from a reputable dealer. Try and keep the different species blood lines pure.

For Information on keeping freshwater fish, see:
Freshwater Aquarium Guide: Aquarium Setup and Care

  • Kingdom: Animalia
  • Phylum: Chordata
  • Class: Actinopterygii
  • Order: Perciformes
  • Family: Cichlidae
  • Genus: Pseudotropheus
  • Species: tropheops tropheops
Tropheops Red Cheek - Quick Aquarium Care
  • Aquarist Experience Level: Intermediate
  • Size of fish - inches: 5.5 inches (14.00 cm)
  • Minimum Tank Size: 40 gal (151 L)
  • Temperament: Semi-aggressive
  • Aquarium Hardiness: Moderately hardy
  • Temperature: 75.0 to 78.0° F (23.9 to 25.6° C)
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Habitat: Distribution / Background

The Tropheops Sp. "Red Cheek" Tropheops tropheops (previously Pseudotropheus tropheops tropheops) was described by Regan in 1922. They are found in Lake Malawi, Africa from the Maleri Islands to the Chinyamwezi Rocks. This species is listed on the IUCN Red List as Vulnerable (VU). Although it is endemic to Lake Malawi it has a very restricted range, found in only the four locations of Maleri Island, Chemwezi rocks, Chinyankhwazi Island and Chinyamwezi Island, but there are no major recognized threats at present.

The genus Pseudotropheus was formerly used quite broadly for the large variety of Mbuna species in Lake Malawi. Recent revisions have split the genus Pseudotropheus into three sub-genera: Pseudotropheus Pseudotropheus, Pseudotropheus Tropheops, and Pseudotropheus Maylandia. These then became recognized as their own genera of Pseudotropheus, Tropheops, and Maylandia. This species and several similar species have been placed in the genus,Tropheops.

Other common names they are known by are Pseudotropheus Tropheops Red Head, Pseudotropheus Tropheops Red Cheek, Tropheops Red Cheek, and Macropthalmus Red cheek, Pseudotropheus Big eye, Big Eye, and Golden Tropheops. But the most interesting description we've found for them is 'M'kokafodya', interpreted in the Mbuna language as 'Glowing Fire' or 'Live Coal'.

They are commonly found in the turbulent, yet clean shores in the top 9 to 15 feet (2.74 - 4.57 m) of the water column. They live in sediment free zones where there's an even balance of rocks and sand. They feed at an angle of about of about 45°, shearing off algae from the substrate which may contain Aufwuchs. Aufwuchs refers to tough stringy algae that is attached to rocks and can contain insect larvae, nymphs, crustaceans, snails, mites and zooplankton. Some will even maintain "algal gardens" .They will also eat plankton in the water if there is a lot of it available.

  • Scientific Name: Pseudotropheus tropheops tropheops
  • Social Grouping: Groups - Males may be solitary defending a territory while females, juveniles, and non-breeding males will be seen singly or in small groups.
  • IUCN Red List: VU - Vulnerable


The Tropheops Sp. "Red Cheek" has the typical Mbuna elongated 'torpedo' body shape. Their mouth is positioned lower on the head than other species, the lower jaw is shorter than upper jaw, and it has a steep sloping snout. They can grow to about 5 1/2 inches (14 cm) in length. Mbuna cichlids can live up to 10 years with proper care.

They vary in color depending on location. The males are mainly blue with yellow to red in the area of their cheeks and chin, and a little across the back just under the dorsal fin. The front three quarters of the dorsal fin is blue and the remainder is yellow. The tail fin is yellow and there are yellow egg spots on the anal fin. From some locations the males can be mostly yellow with blue across the top back, and can have more blue in the fins. Yet still they have the yellow to red chin and cheek feature. The females are gold and sometimes have spotting on them.

All cichlids share a common feature that some saltwater fish such as wrasses and parrotfish have and that is a well-developed pharyngeal set of teeth that are in the throat, along with their regular teeth. Cichlids have spiny rays in the back parts of the anal, dorsal, pectoral, and pelvic fins to help discourage predators. The front part of these fins are soft and perfect for precise positions and effortless movements in the water as opposed to fast swimming.

Cichlids have one nostril on each side while other fish have 2 sets. To sense "smells" in the water, they suck water in and expel the water right back out after being "sampled" for a short or longer time, depending on how much the cichlid needs to "smell" the water. This feature is shared by saltwater damselfish and cichlids are thought to be closely related.

  • Size of fish - inches: 5.5 inches (14.00 cm)
  • Lifespan: 10 years - Mbuna cichlids have a lifespan of about 10 years with proper care.

Fish Keeping Difficulty

This is a good fish for both the intermediate and experienced cichlid keeper. It is an aggressive cichlid, and not a community tank specimen. It cannot kept with fish other than cichlids. The aquarists must be willing to do frequent water changes and provide appropriate tank mates. It is susceptible to Malawi bloat as well as the typical diseases that effect all freshwater fish if the tank is not maintained. In the proper setup it will easily adapt to prepared foods, breed readily, and the juveniles are easy to raise as well.

  • Aquarium Hardiness: Moderately hardy
  • Aquarist Experience Level: Intermediate

Foods and Feeding

The Tropheops Sp. "Red Cheek" is an omnivore that in the wild will shear off algae from the substrate which may contain Aufwuchs and will also eat plankton. In captivity they need vegetable matter which provides fiber in their diet to keep their intestinal tract disease free. A good quality cichlid flake or pellet can be used as a basic diet along with spirulina flake giving a varied diet to help with overall health.

It is always better to feed them small amounts several times a day instead of one large feeding. This keeps the water quality higher for a longer period of time. Of course, all fish benefit from added vitamins and supplements to their foods. It would not be wise to house this fish with other genus of cichlids that eat beef heart or other mammal meat, as these foods will cause intestinal infections and death in these fish.

  • Diet Type: Omnivore
  • Flake Food: Yes
  • Tablet / Pellet: Yes
  • Live foods (fishes, shrimps, worms): Some of Diet
  • Vegetable Food: Most of Diet
  • Meaty Food: Some of Diet
  • Feeding Frequency: Daily - Offer several small feedings a day, what they can eat in about 3 minutes or less, rather than a single large feeding.

Aquarium Care

Malawi Cichlids will deteriorate under poor water conditions. Along with an established filtration system, a water change of of 30% a week, or 20% to 40% biweekly depending on load, is needed for their health. It is also suggested to change the rock work around once a month if aggression is shown.

  • Water Changes: Weekly - Water changes of 30% weekly, or 20-40% bi-weekly are suggested, depending on the bio load.

Aquarium Setup

The streams that flow into Lake Malawi have a high mineral content. This along with evaporation has resulted in alkaline water that is highly mineralized. Lake Malawi is known for its clarity and stability as far as pH and other water chemistries. It is easy to see why it is important to watch tank parameters with all Lake Malawi fish.

Rift lake cichlids need hard alkaline water but are not found in brackish waters. Salt is sometimes used as a buffering agent to increase the water's carbonate hardness. This cichlid has some salt tolerance so can be kept in slightly brackish water conditions. However it not suited to a full brackish water tank. It can tolerate a salinity that is about 10% of a normal saltwater tank, a specific gravity of less than 1.0002.

A minimum 40 gallons is suggested for a single fish, but a larger aquarium of 50 gallons or more will be needed to keep more than one or a mixed Mbuna tank. They do fine in either freshwater or brackish freshwater but need good water movement along with very strong and efficient filtration. Sand is the preferred substrate, but some aquarists have also used crushed coral or a mix of gravel and crushed coral. A substrate of crushed coral or sand used for salt water tanks can help keep the pH up. They also tend to dissolves easier than salts.. Keeping a higher pH however, means that ammonia is more lethal, so regular water changes are a must for these fish.

They need lots of caves and rocks for them to explore and to hide in, especially when the male is abusing the females. Females need lots of hiding places. Arranging the rocks in a manner to make "territories" will help ease aggression. Moving rocks around every two weeks to a month may also help with an overly aggressive fish. They like to dig so make sure the rocks sit on the bottom of the aquarium not on the substrate.

  • Minimum Tank Size: 40 gal (151 L) - A minimum of 40 gallons is suggested for a single fish, with 50 gallons or more needed to keep more than one or for a mixed Mbuna tank.
  • Suitable for Nano Tank: No
  • Substrate Type: Sand/Gravel Mix
  • Lighting Needs: Moderate - normal lighting
  • Temperature: 75.0 to 78.0° F (23.9 to 25.6° C)
  • Range ph: 8.0-9.0
  • Hardness Range: 8 - 12 dGH
  • Brackish: Sometimes - Salt is not found in their natural environment, but they do have a slight tolerance, keep levels below 10% - a specific gravity of less than 1.0002.
  • Water Movement: Moderate
  • Water Region: Middle - These fish will swim in the middle and bottom areas of the aquarium.

Social Behaviors

This cichlid is aggressive and is not considered to be a community fish. They can be housed with other Mbunas as long as their size and coloring is different. They can be temperamental, aggressive and very territorial especially when spawning or protecting a breeding site. They are not aggressive toward females of other species, but may chase after the males.

The Tropheops Sp. "Red Cheek" needs be be grouped with one male and at least 5 or more females since the males are very very rough on them. Provide lots of hiding places so the females can can get a break. You may decide, after spawning, to take the female out so she can heal and hatch her babies in peace.

  • Temperament: Semi-aggressive
  • Compatible with:
    • Same species - conspecifics: Yes - They can be kept in groups of 1 male with 5 or more females. They are very aggressive towards females, especially when in breeding mode, so the females must have plenty of hiding places.
    • Peaceful fish (): Threat
    • Semi-Aggressive (): Safe - They can be housed with other Mbunas as long as their size and coloring is different.
    • Aggressive (): Threat
    • Large Semi-Aggressive (): Threat
    • Large Aggressive, Predatory (): Threat
    • Slow Swimmers & Eaters (): Threat
    • Shrimps, Crabs, Snails: Threat - is aggressive
    • Plants: Threat

Sex: Sexual differences

The males are mainly blue accented with yellow, are larger, and have yellow egg spots on the anal fin, the females are yellow.

Breeding / Reproduction

The Tropheops Sp. "Red Cheek" has been bred in captivity and is a mouthbrooder. Once the dominant male decides to breed, he will become severely aggressive and pummel his females. You need to have at least 5 females to spread out the aggression. Like other Mbunas the males coloring will change. He will shake and circle the female, moving her to a flat rock in his territory, then the breeding begins.

The female will lay between 10 - 40 eggs, depending on her size. The female then immediately takes them into her mouth. The male will then flare out his anal fin which has an 'egg spot' patterning. The female mistakes the patterning for her own eggs and tries to take them in her mouth as well. This stimulates the male to discharge sperm (milt cloud) and the female inhales the cloud of 'milt', thus fertilizing the eggs. In 7 - 10 days at about 80 - 82° F the eggs hatch. The fry are free swimming in another 10 to 17 days.

Tropheops Sp. "Red Cheek" females are very good mothers and may protect the fry in her mouth for another 10 days after the fry are free swimming. These fry are a little bigger than other Mbuna fry and are a silvery color at first. Their coloring will be visible in 3 weeks. They can eat daphnia and crushed flake. They will eat voraciously so keep the water clean. See the description of how cichlids breed in Breeding Freshwater Fish: Cichlids.

  • Ease of Breeding: Easy

Fish Diseases

Malawi bloat is a typical disease for the Tropheops Red Cheek, especially if their dietary needs are not met with quality foods. They are susceptible to typical fish ailments, especially if water is stale and of poor quality and oxygenation. One common problem is Ich. It can be treated with the elevation of the tank temperature to 86° F (30° C) for 3 days. If that does not cure the Ich, then the fish needs to be treated with copper (remove any water conditioners). Several copper based fish medications are available for Ich. Copper use must be kept within the proper levels, so be sure to follow the manufacturers suggestions. A copper test also can be used to keep the proper levels. You can also combine increasing the temperature with an Ich medication treatment.

As with most fish they are susceptible to skin flukes and other parasitic infestations (protozoa, worms, etc.), fungal infections, and bacterial infections. It is recommended to read up on the common tank diseases. Knowing the signs and catching and treating them early makes a huge difference. For information about freshwater fish diseases and illnesses, see Aquarium Fish Diseases and Treatments.


Tropheops Sp. "Red Cheek" are occasionally found online or in fish stores and are moderately expensive, with prices varying depending on size. Juveniles are occasionally available and are moderate in price. These fish may be special ordered if you are willing to wait for them if they are out of season. When acquiring a Tropheops Sp. "Red Cheek", with all the different hybrids that have formed in captivity, there is no way to tell exactly what you are getting unless it is from a reputable dealer.


Author: Carrie McBirney, Clarice Brough CFS
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