The Tanganyikan Butterfly is a uniquely beautiful cichlid, but challenging to keep!
The Tanganyikan Butterfly Xenotilapia papilio has an unusual but pretty appearance. This is a small delicate looking cichlid from Lake Tanganyika, Africa. It is a more recent addition to the cichlid hobby, having just been described in 1990. It was discovered by the German Heinz H. Buscher while he was diving on the eastern side of the lake.
It has an elongated body shape with delicate looking fins, a long flat head, and a downward pointing snout. The largest reported size is about 4 inches (10 cm) in length, though it more commonly grows to only about 3 inches (7.8 cm). Its feathery finnage and pleasing colors likening it to both an attractive butterfly and a sunflower. Its body coloring overall is a soft gray to light brown dotted with some silvery blue spots. The head is usually yellow and the fins will sport various amount of yellow or blue.
The patterning on the dorsal fin is most striking and there are two distinct color patterns. One is the site type Tembwe Deux which will have varying amounts of black spotting, sometimes looking like a peacock’s eye. The other is a geographic variant from Zambia with varying degrees of pale yellow on the dorsal fin and virtually no black markings, and is known as the Xenotilapia sp. “Papilio Sunflower”. This designation is usually followed with the name of the region in which they are found. Some of the best known varieties are Xenotilapia papilio “Msalaba”, Xenotilapia papilio “Isanga”, Xenotilapia papilio “Tembwe II”, and Xenotilapia papilio “Kanoni”.
Along with its elegant appearance this cichlid has some intriguing behaviors. Their spawning dances and joint parental mouth brooding are a rewarding site for the attentive aquarist, as are their feeding activities. The Xenotilapia genus contain species that inhabit two types of environments. They are either more of a sand-dwelling species or more rock-dwelling. The Tanganyikan Butterfly is a rock-dweller. While sand dwellers will push through the sand with their long snout to get at crustaceans hiding within, this cichlid rummages through fine sand and detritus covering the rocks.
This cichlid makes a great specimen for the advanced aquarist as it is moderate to difficult to care for. They are very sensitive to handling and water quality. They can be kept as pairs and form a strong pair bond. However if keeping more than one pair, they can be very aggressive among themselves, especially when breeding. Placing rocks in a way to block their visibility of other pairs helps with aggression. They will tolerate those of a different genus that occupy other levels in the tank, but they do not do well when occupying the same level in the tank with other fish. To prevent stress, avoid including other aggressive species that also stay in the lower levels.
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: Xenotilapia
- Species: papilio
- Aquarist Experience Level: Advanced
- Size of fish – inches: 3.1 inches (7.80 cm)
- Minimum Tank Size: 50 gal (189 L)
- Temperament: Aggressive
- Aquarium Hardiness: Moderately Difficult
- Temperature: 75.0 to 82.0° F (23.9 to 27.8° C)
- My Aquarium – Enter your aquarium to see if this fish is compatible!
Habitat: Distribution / Background
The Tanganyikan Butterfly Xenotilapia papilio was described by Buscher in 1990. These fish are endemic to Lake Tanganyika, Africa and they are not currently listed on the IUCN Red List. Other common names they are known by include Xenotilapia sp. “Papilio Sunflower” and Butterfly Xenotilapia.
Xenotilapia sp. “Papilio Sunflower” is usually followed with the name of the region in which they are found. The ‘Sunflowers’ are not yet scientifically described and are usually regarded as color morphs, but could also be a very closely related autonomous species. Some of the best known varieties are Xenotilapia papilio “Msalaba”, Xenotilapia papilio “Isanga”, Xenotilapia papilio “Tembwe II”, and Xenotilapia papilio “Kanoni”. Others include Katete, Kambwimba, Kantalamba, Kerenge, Mvuna, Chituta, Namansi, Samazi, and Ulwile.
The Xenotilapia genus has 13 described species and a number of variants or possible subspecies. These are a genus of “Goby Cichlids” from Lake Tanganyika, Africa. They are small cichlids with elongated bodies bodies, a long flat head, and a little downward pointing snout. They can be broken into two types, being either more of a sand-dwelling species or more rock-dwelling species. Sand dwellers will push through the sand with their long snout to get at crustaceans hiding within, while rock dwellers rummage through fine sand and detritus covering the rocks in deep waters. These fish are very delicate and sensitive to handling and shipping. They are relatively non-aggressive, but males can be very aggressive towards each other when courting.
This genus is a largest group in the tribe Ectodini. The tribe contains 11 genera and 30 species of African Cichlids, endemic to Lake Tanganyika, with most of the genera being monotypic. The Ectodini cichlids are highly variable, actually considered the most morphologically and behaviorally diverse tribe in the lake. They are found in coastline regions living in sand, mud and rocky habitats.These cichlids are small to moderate sized, ranging from 3-10 inches (7.6-25 cm). They are widely varying in body shape but for most the head is the deepest part. They are perfectly adapted to their preferred natural habitats and feed primariy on aquatic invertebrates or plankton. All species are mouthbrooders that are either biparental or maternal.
The Tanganyikan Butterfly cichlids are a rock dwelling species of Xenotilapia. These Xenotilapia prefer rocky habitats compared to their sand sifting cousins; and unlike their cousins they do not school in large numbers. They are found swimming in pairs or small groups of four to eight fish over sandy and rocky bottoms at depths down to 160 feet (50 m). They feed on the layer of sediment consisting of fine sand and detritus that covers the deeper rocks, eating small crustaceans, algae and insect larvae.
- Scientific Name: Xenotilapia papilio
- Social Grouping: Varies – They are found in pairs or small groups of 4 – 8 fish.
- IUCN Red List: NE – Not Evaluated or not listed
This cichlid is slender and elongated with a continuous dorsal fin. The fins seem proportionately large for their body giving it a feathery look and leading to the descriptive name Tanganyikan Butterfly. It commonly grows to about 3 inches (7.8 cm) in length, but has a reported size of about 4 inches (10 cm). The head is long and flat with a little downward pointing snout. The snout is situated in a way that they can take advantage of sifting through sand to get at crustaceans hiding there. They can live 5 – 8 years with proper care.
The body is a gray to light brown with some silvery blue spots. There are varying amounts of yellow on the front parts of the dorsal and anal fins, and on the pelvic fins. On top of that, there are distinct geographic variations in color an patterning:
- Tembwe Deux
There are two distinct geographic variants from Tembwe Deux. One is a gray/beige with blue spots on the body. The pelvic fins are gold with black and blue spotting and the dorsal and anal fins are mainly a blue with black spotting and some edging in yellow. The tail fin is a blue with the end trimmed in black. In the northern part of this region, at Kanoni, this cichlid has the same body coloring but has yellow dorsal fins with no black spotting.
Geographic variants from Zambia have varying degrees of pale yellow and irregular brown spotting on the dorsal fin. These are known as the Xenotilapia sp. “Papilio Sunflower”. This designation is usually followed with the name of the region in which they are found. These are scientifically undescribed and are usually regarded as color morphs, but could also be a very closely related autonomous species.
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: 3.1 inches (7.80 cm) – They commonly grow to a length of 3″ (7.8 cm), however the largest reported specimen is said to have been up to 3.94 inches (10 cm).
- Lifespan: 5 years – They have a lifespan of 5 – 8 years with proper care.
Fish Keeping Difficulty
This is a fish best kept by experienced cichlid keepers. It is moderate to difficult to care for as it is very sensitive to handling and water quality. It is also an aggressive cichlid and not a community tank specimen. It can be kept singly or as a pair if there are plenty of hiding places. It can also be kept with other more aggressive cichlids that occupy different areas of the tank. The aquarists must be willing to provide a properly set up aquarium with appropriate tank mates, and be willing to do frequent water changes.
- Aquarium Hardiness: Moderately Difficult
- Aquarist Experience Level: Advanced
Foods and Feeding
The Tanganyikan Butterfly is an omnivore. In the wild they eat crustaceans, copepods, insect larvae, and shrimp along with algae; searching for foods from the rock and sand. In the aquarium they will generally eat all kinds of fresh and prepared foods. To keep a good balance give them a high quality flake food or pellet everyday. Regularly supplement these with Cyclops, water fleas, brine and mysis shrimps, or other special foods for Lake Tanganyika cichlids.
It is suggested that you do not feed live foods and tubifex worms due to possible diseases and pathogens that may be transferred to your fish. Feed 2 to 5 small pinches of food a day in smaller amounts instead of a large quantity once a day. All fish benefit from vitamins and supplements added to their foods.
- Diet Type: Omnivore
- Flake Food: Yes
- Tablet / Pellet: Yes
- Vegetable Food: Some of Diet
- Meaty Food: Most 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.
Do normal water changes of 10% to 15% a week, or more frequent changes depending on the nitrite/ammonia levels and stocking numbers. The Lake Tanganyika cichlids cannot handle large water changes very well unless the new water chemistry closely matches the water they are in. If a large water change is needed, changing 15% every couple of days should bring water back to normal. This inability to tolerate large water changes is due to Lake Tanganyika being very deep and the water tends to stay stable. These fish are easily startled so if you must net them, collecting when sleeping is suggested.
- Water Changes: Weekly – Water changes of 10-15% weekly are suggested, only do more if the water parameters are off. Be cautious of doing more frequent changes as these fish are very sensitive to new water.
The Tanganyikan Butterfly is active and will swim on the bottom areas of the aquarium. Though they are a smaller cichlid they are aggressive. A minimum 50 gallons with a length of 48″ is recommended. They do fine in either freshwater or brackish freshwater but need good water movement along with very strong and efficient filtration. Lake Tanganyika is a very oxygen rich lake so bubblers need to be going day and night, even if there are plants. Regularly check nitrates and ph, nitrates should be no more than 25 ppm and a pH less than 7 is not tolerated. In addition keep an eye on total hardness and carbonate hardness. Avoid overfeeding and overstocking.
Lake Tanganyika is the second to largest lake in the world, thus contributing to a low fluctuation in temperature and pH. All Tanganyika cichlids need stable temperatures kept within acceptable limits and lots of oxygen to survive. Temperatures under 72° F and over 86° F for too long is not tolerated by many of these fish. When treating for ich, a few days at 86° F is acceptable. The lake is also consistently alkaline with a pH of around 9, and very hard at about 12 – 14° dGH. In the aquarium most Tanganyika cichlids are fairly adaptable as long as conditions are close to these ideal ranges. Most important is that their water chemistry doesn’t change much over time. The water needs to be well buffered and maintained with small, regular water changes.
Salt is sometimes used as a buffering agent to increase the water’s carbonate hardness. An alternative buffering approach is to use a chemical filtration method, where the water passes through layers of crushed coral or coral sand. Interestingly, Tanganyikan cichlids also need iodine for the thyroid to function properly to regulate growth and development, and which can be achieved by adding iodized table salt to the water. Although rift lake cichlids need hard alkaline water they are not found in brackish waters. 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.
Provide lots of rocks and a sandy substrate. Sand used for salt water tanks can help keep the pH up as well as the addition of crushed coral. Crushed coral and aragonite sands do tend to dissolve easier than salts. They need a lot of rocks piled up to create cave formations. When keeping more than one pair, placing rocks in a way to block their visibility of other pairs helps with aggression. Plants are ignored, but may help the fry to survive.
- Minimum Tank Size: 50 gal (189 L) – A minimum 50 gallons with a length of 48″ is suggested.
- Suitable for Nano Tank: No
- Substrate Type: Sand
- Lighting Needs: Moderate – normal lighting
- Temperature: 75.0 to 82.0° F (23.9 to 27.8° C)
- Range ph: 7.5-9.0
- Hardness Range: 10 – 25 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: Bottom – These fish will swim on the bottom areas of the aquarium.
The Tanganyikan Butterfly is an aggressive cichlid. They can be kept in pairs but are generally semi-aggressive toward those of the same species, especially when breeding. Others of the same species will act as dither fish for the pair you want to breed, which can help reduce aggression between the mated pair.
They will tolerate those of a different genus that occupy other levels in the tank, but don’t do well with others occupying the same level. They need to be the main inhabitant in their “level” of the tank to avoid stress. Placing rocks in a way to block their visibility to other pairs also helps with aggression. Aggressive cichlids that can be kept with them are other Xenotilapia, the Utinta Cyprichromis Leptosoma, and smaller Neolamprologus. Do not house with other color varieties of Tanganyikan Butterflys to avoid cross breeding and losing pure strains.
- Temperament: Aggressive
- Compatible with:
- Same species – conspecifics: Yes – Can be kept in pairs but are generally semi-aggressive toward those of the same species, especially when breeding.
- Peaceful fish (): Threat
- Semi-Aggressive (): Monitor
- Aggressive (): Safe
- Large Semi-Aggressive (): Threat
- Large Aggressive, Predatory (): Threat
- Shrimps, Crabs, Snails: Threat – is aggressive
- Plants: Safe
Sex: Sexual differences
There are no obvious sexual distinctions, but females ready to spawn may have a rounder belly.
Breeding / Reproduction
The Tanganyikan Butterfly has been bred in captivity. These are called biparental mouthbrooders. A strong bond between the male and female is established by buying around 4 – 8 juveniles and waiting for them to pair. Once there are a few couples, some aquarists will only leave two sets in the tank. The dominant set will chase the subordinate couple instead of each other, which in turn strengthens their bond. Do not remove the desired pair from the tank as this may break their bond.
The pair will find a quiet area on the sand near a rock. The female attracts the male by flaring out all of her fins and circling the male. The male repeats the “dance” and the female then lays about 5 tiny eggs that are a light yellow. The male fertilizes the eggs and then the female takes them into her mouth. There are usually 15 or fewer eggs in a clutch. The female carries the eggs for 9 -13 days and then she transfers them to the male.
After 3 weeks the fry are released. Both parents will guard them for several weeks. The fry will seek the shelter of their parent’s mouths if threatened or at night. The fry can be fed newly hatched artemia. The female can start to carry another clutch soon after the fry are released from the male’s mouth. See the description of breeding monogamous cichlids in: Breeding Freshwater Fish: Cichlids.
- Ease of Breeding: Moderate
The Tanganyikan Butterfly is susceptible to typical fish ailments, especially if water is stale and of poor quality and oxygenation. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Water changes, not overfeeding or overcrowding, and observation along with feeding your fish the proper foods (thawing frozen food and adding vitamins) will keep them in optimum health. For freshwater an optional practice is to add 1 heaping teaspoon of salt per 11 gallons of water. This is considered to be a simple and natural remedy for wounds, minor fungal infections and film over the eyes of fish in transit. Using a marine salt (used for salt water fish) will add some trace elements.
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 Tanganyikan Butterfly is rarely readily available online or in fish stores but they can be special ordered, and they are expensive when available,
- Animal-World References: Freshwater Fish and Plants
- Dr. R?diger Riehl and Hans A. Baensch, Aquarium Atlas Vol. 3 , Voyageur Press, 1996
- Mark Phillip Smith, Lake Tanganyika Cichlids, A Complete Pet Owners Manual, 2nd Edition, Barron’s Educational Series, Inc. 2007
- George Zurlo, David Schleser, Cichlids (Complete Pet Owner’s Manual), Barron’s Education Series, 2005
- Glen S. Axelrod, Brian M. Scott, Neal Pronek, Encyclopedia Of Exotic Tropical Fishes For Freshwater Aquariums, TFH Publications, 2005
- Peter Bredell, Frank Schneidewind, Lake Tanganyika Cichlids, How to keep successfully and enjoy these exceptional fish, Interpet Publishing , 2002
- Xenotilapia papilio (B?scher, 1990), Fishbase.org
- Rhett Butler, “Cichlids – Lake Tanganyika”, Mongabay.com, Referenced online, 2007
- Thomas Andersen (2005), “Beautiful as a Butterfly: Xenotilapia papilio B?scher, 1990”, The Cichlid Room Companion, Ohio Cichlid Association
- Glen S. Axelrod, Rift Lake Cichlids, T.F.H. Publications, Inc., 1979