The Red Empress is favorite Utaka cichlid from Lake Malawi, with males that display bright variations of rainbow color!

The Red Empress Protomelas taeniolatus (previously Haplochromis taeniolatus) is very dazzling in its adult male colors. It is an endemic species found only in Lake Malawi, Africa, but there are a number of color variations depending on where in the lake they originate. The females however are not so brilliant. They basically have a silvery colored body with marked with various dark spots, lines or blotches, and sometimes a touch of orange in some fins, also depending on where they come from.

These cichlids are commonly known as the Spindle Hap, as well as Haplochromis Red Empress and Haplochromis Fire Blue for naturally occurring color morphs. A few location specific names include Tangerine Tiger, Chilumba Jetty, and Fire Blue. Some captive bred specimens are very red and have names such as Red Empress, or the ‘Super Red Empress’ which was developed in Europe.

They are different from the Mbuna or rock-dwelling cichlids, as they they prefer open swimming areas where the rock meets the sand. But they still prefer being around rocky areas that offer retreats in caves or cracks. As they are a peaceful fish, do not mix them with aggressive Mbunas. They can be housed with other peaceful Malawi Lake cichlids, as well as Pictus Catfish and Ropefish. Try and keep the different species blood lines pure.

This is an ideal fish for the beginning cichlid keeper who can provide a large enough tank. The minimum suggested tank size is 75 gallons, but being Haplochromine cichlids they need a lot of swimming room. A 100 gallon aquarium is really the optimal size for these fish. It is easy to moderate to care for, depending on the aquarist’s diligence in keeping water quality high. They are easy to breed and the male has beautiful coloring as long as water quality is kept high. Good quality water will result in colorful males willing to spawn almost immediately after they are added to a large tank.

Provide plenty of rock work in the background, forming caves and holes as hiding areas for the females during mating season. They like vertically placed rocks as well, and will use a smooth flat rock or two for spawning. They are not aggressive toward tank mates. Even during mating they only defend a small area, and give it up after the spawn is done. This is a ‘sand sifter’ cichlid that’s great at keeping the top of the substrate clean, but its not a big digger so works well even in a planted aquarium. Just be certain the plants do not get in the way of open swimming areas.

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: Protomelas
  • Species: taeniolatus
Red Empress – Quick Aquarium Care
  • Aquarist Experience Level: Beginner
  • Size of fish – inches: 5.9 inches (15.01 cm)
  • Minimum Tank Size: 75 gal (284 L)
  • Temperament: Semi-aggressive
  • Aquarium Hardiness: Moderately hardy
  • Temperature: 73.0 to 82.0° F (22.8 to 27.8&deg C)
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Habitat: Distribution / Background

The Red Empress Protomelas taeniolatus (previously Haplochromis taeniolatus) was described by Trewavas in 1935. They occur in the Africa rift lake area and are endemic to Lake Malawi. This species is listed on the IUCN Red List as Lease Concern (LC). It is endemic to Lake Malawi but is widespread throughout and there are no recognized threats at present.

Other common names it is known by include Spindle Hap, Haplochromis Red Empress and Haplochromis Fire Blue. A few location specific names include Tangerine Tiger, Chilumba Jetty, and Fire Blue. Some captive bred specimens are very red and have names such as Red Empress, or the ‘Super Red Empress’ which was developed in Europe.

They prefer sediment free habitats that are shallow and rocky where they feed on “aufwuchs” that are attached to rocks. They also feed on zooplankton and other small inverts when available. Aufwuchs refers to tough stringy algae that is attached to rocks. “Loose” Aufwuchs can contain insect larvae, nymphs, crustaceans, snails, mites and zooplankton.

  • Scientific Name: Protomelas taeniolatus
  • Social Grouping: Varies – Generally solitary, coming together in groups to spawn.
  • IUCN Red List: LC – Least Concern


The Red Empress or Spindle Hap has a body shape that is similar to the Peacock cichlids only deeper, and the forehead is a little higher. The Red Empress also has a “forked” tail, whereas the Peacocks do not. It can grow around 5 – 6 inches (13 – 15 cm) in length, and will sometimes get larger in the aquarium. Cichlids from Lake Malawi generally live from 7 to 10 years.

Males are generally orange-red in the body. Depending on the location where they are found, some males will develop a brownish-red color on the anal fin. Some specimens will have blue and yellow in the body, and there are some markings that are not always visible. There are also captive bred color morphs that are very red, such as the ‘Super Red Empress’ developed in Europe.

Red Empress or Spindle Hap
Photo © Animal-World:
Courtesy Greg Rothschild

Two faint horizontal lines run along the upper body, one from the forehead and back about 2/3’s of the way and the other from the gills back to the caudal fin. There are also three to four faded small “irregular oval” spots on the back, with one color variation having the third irregular oval located right where the top horizontal line ends.

The females are silvery in color. They also have the two horizontal lines and same three small “irregular ovals” on the back as found on the male, though they are dark in females. Juveniles have the same coloring as females, with the males coloring up at just over 3″ (8 cm).

There are several naturally occurring color morphs of the Red Empress that depend on the location they are found in Lake Malawi. A few of the naturally occurring variations are described below, including female descriptions as well:

  • Fire Blue
    This Red Empress, also called the Haplochromis Fire Blue, is basically all blue with the edges of the scales tipped in a red orange color. The only area that is different is the anal fin, and it is orange red with a few blue dots. The dorsal is tipped with a lighter blue and orange. The females are silver with the 2 broken horizontal lines and “irregular ovals” across the back, but she has orange on the very tips of the length of the dorsal and anal fin.
  • Chizumulu Island
    This Red Empress is more of a yellow/orange in the main body, with a blue head, blue dorsal and tail fins that have spotting and dashes of red. The anal and pelvic fins have more red with edging of blue. Females are silver with a dark broken horizontal line running through the middle of the body and 6 or more “spots” on the top of the back and a loose crescent shaped line that runs through the eye.
  • Likoma Island
    This specimen has coloring that earns it the name “Tangerine Tiger.” The male is not as spectacular with only blue and some gold in the body. The dorsal and anal fins are blue with faded god dots and dashes. The head is the typical blue with the area behind the head having a vertical “band” in gold, with the rest of the body a faded blue under about 7 or 8 vertical darker faded lines. The females are silver with those same 7 or 8 vertical lines, but are “broken” lines. The eye has a slanted dark line that runs from the forehead, forward to the back of the mouth.
  • Namalenje Island
    This specimen has a blue head, yellow to red in the body and a dorsal fin that is blue with red spotting, trimmed in a white to yellow edging that runs across the very tips of the dorsal. The anal is red with blue and gold spattering, red pelvic fins with a blue ray at the front, and the anal fin is red. The female is silver with a broken horizontal band that runs behind the eye and has several “spots” across the entire back starting where the dorsal stars and continues to where the tail fin starts.
  • Chilumba Jetty
    This specimen has the most apparent dark accents in the male. His body is blue with gold on the belly and has 7 or 8 dark vertical lines along with a broken horizontal line that runs the length of the body, almost looking more like oval spots than a line. The dorsal is blue with gold spotting, the tail fin is gold with blue specking, the anal fin is gold with blue dashes and dots, and the pelvic fin is gold with a slight hint of blue on the first front ray. The head is blue on top and gold under the eye area, extending to the chin and continuing to the belly. There is a slanted dark line that runs through the eye from a faint start on the forehead, forward through the eye and darkening as it angles to the back of the mouth area. Females are silver with the same odd mottling of dark areas in the body.

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: 5.9 inches (15.01 cm) – They grow to a length of 5-6″ (13-15 cm) in nature, and sometimes larger in home aquaria.
  • Lifespan: 7 years – They have a lifespan of 7 to 10 years with proper care.

Fish Keeping Difficulty

These cichlids make a great choice for the beginning cichlid keeper, and are appealling to the advanced aquarist as well. They are easy to care for, easy to feed, and relatively undemanding aquarium residents. They are also fairly peaceful, making good inhabitants for the community tank, and will readily breed. The aquarium does need regular water changes. They are susceptible to Malawi bloat as well as the typical diseases that effect all freshwater fish if the tank is not maintained.

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

Foods and Feeding

The Red Empress is an omnivore that feeds on aufwuchs, a loose stringy algae that is attached to rocks, zooplankton and small invertebrates. In the aquarium they need spirulina based flake foods as well as some meaty foods such as frozen or freeze dried mysis and krill. The majority of their diet should be vegetable based. Their coloring can be enhanced by food products that are a highly nutritious herbivorous content, and have added pigmentation qualities.

They will eat to the point of their stomach being distended, so be very careful to not overfeed or your fish will lose their slender and natural look. Feed several small meals instead of one or two large ones, as they are very susceptible to Malawi Bloat. They will benefit from having their food soaked in Vitamin C occasionally.

  • 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: Several feedings per day – Offer several small feedings a day, what they can eat in about 3 minutes or less, rather than one or two larger feedings.

Aquarium Care

Malawi Cichlids will deteriorate under poor water conditions. Do water changes of 10% to 20% a week depending on bio load. Malawi bloat is a typical disease especially if their mostly herbivorous dietary needs are not met with quality foods

  • Water Changes: Weekly – Water changes of 10-20% 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 75 gallons is suggested, though a 100 gallons is preferred. They do fine in either freshwater or brackish freshwater but need good water movement along with very strong and efficient filtration. High water quality will promote the best colors in the Red Empress. Without this the colors will be faded and unappealing.

Sand is a must have, as they are sand sifters and this is where they get a lot of their meaty nutrition. An established tank will provide these little ‘bugs’. Just like the marine sand sifters they drop sand all over, so make sure your filter system has a sponge over it or position it higher in the tank. Sand used for saltwater fish or freshwater can be used and if keeping them with a higher Ph, the saltwater sand can help keep the Ph up.  A very slow acclimation to different pH levels can sometimes be achieved. Keeping a higher pH however, means that ammonia is more lethal, so regular water changes are a must for these fish.

Some rock work and wood to provide hiding places is necessary, but they need open space for swimming at the bottom and middle areas of the tank. They like vertically placed rocks as well, and will use a smooth flat rock or two for spawning. Plants can be added as well, as these fish are not big on digging, just make sure the plants do not get in the way of open swimming areas.

  • Minimum Tank Size: 75 gal (284 L) – A minimum 75 gallons is suggested, though a 100 gallons is preferred.
  • Suitable for Nano Tank: No
  • Substrate Type: Sand
  • Lighting Needs: Moderate – normal lighting
  • Temperature: 73.0 to 82.0° F (22.8 to 27.8&deg C)
  • Range ph: 7.7-8.6
  • Hardness Range: 6 – 10 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

The Red Empress is best kept in groups of one male and at least three females. They will attack other males of the same species, unless the tank is over 200 gallons. Females are relatively peaceful even when brooding and the parents cooperate in rearing the young.

They are a peaceful cichlid, but not considered to be a community fish. They can be housed with Nimbochromis species such as the Venustus and Livingstoni or the Blood Parrot Cichlids because they do not chase the Red Empress. They have been kept with with other peaceful Malawi Lake cichlids, as well as Pictus Catfish and Ropefish. Being a more peaceful cichlid, they should not be housed with aggressive Mbunas.

If put in the tank with other compatible Lake Malawi cichlids, watch the water quality. They are pretty durable and they rarely instigate fights or chase tank mates, that is with the exception of the Chilotilapia enchilus unless it is much bigger. The females of this species look similar, so that may be why the Red Empress chases this fish to the point where the C. enchilus will not spawn.

  • Temperament: Semi-aggressive
  • Compatible with:
    • Same species – conspecifics: Yes – They are best kept in groups of 1 male with at least 3 females, 2 males will fight.
    • Peaceful fish (): Monitor
    • Semi-Aggressive (): Safe
    • Aggressive (): Threat
    • Large Semi-Aggressive (): Monitor
    • Large Aggressive, Predatory (): Threat
    • Threat
    • Shrimps, Crabs, Snails: Threat – is aggressive
    • Plants: Safe

Sex: Sexual differences

Males are more colorful and larger than females. Females are silver with darker markings.

Breeding / Reproduction

The Red Empress has been bred in captivity in good water conditions and the proper sized tank, they are actually very easy to breed. They are mouth brooders, though fertilization takes place externally. The male will claim a pretty small area to defend before and during the time they spawn. Males become sexually mature at 8 to 9 months with weak broods at that time, but they will increase as the male ages.

The male will choose a flat stone or clear a spot at the bottom of the tank and then chase the females to get them to follow him to his “pad.” The male then turns upward into an almost vertical position and shakes, which encourages the female into the same position with her head close to his anal fin. After laying her 40 to 50 eggs, she picks them up in their mouth, goes “vertical” again and mouths the male’s anal fin. This stimulates him to release sperm and fertilize the eggs within the female’s mouth.

The female holds her eggs in her mouth for 21 to 28 days. Once the female has her eggs and the spawning event is over, the male will stop guarding the area and just swim in open water. The female will guard the fry. If attempting an artificial incubation, feed the fry small zooplankton or Artemia nauplii at around the middle of the 3rd week. Cyclops, adult brine and glassworms can be fed as they age.

This above spawning description is different than what Fishbase has stated as external fertilization, but was noted by a breeder of the Red Empress. It is possible that it may depend on the individual female. Also according to Fishbase, once the young are hatched, the parents are very effective guardians of their young. They will actually set up “stations” that are designed to be protective by sticking close to the other parent, allowing the young to move back and forth between them for the best protection. With most Haps, the male will eat the fry and not help with raising them. See the description of how cichlids breed in: Breeding Freshwater Fish: Cichlids.

  • Ease of Breeding: Easy

Fish Diseases

The Spindle Haps are susceptible to typical fish ailments, especially if water is stale and of poor quality and oxygenation. Malawi bloat is a typical disease especially if their dietary needs are not met with quality foods. 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.


The Red Empress, also called Spindle Hap, is usually found online and moderately priced. Price is dependent on whether they are male, female, or juvenile. They are usually found in fish stores, though may be special ordered if you are willing to wait for them if they are out of season.

When acquiring a Red Empress, with all the different varieties that have formed in captivity, there is no way to tell exactly what you are getting unless it is from a reputable dealer.