Protomelas taeniolatus – Red Empress

Protomelas taeniolatus is a species with many color varieties. The most famous would be the Boadzulu or Red Empress…..few know the Red Empress isn’t from Boadzulu.

Protomelas taeniolatus

Protomelas taeniolatus was first described by Trewavas in 1935: “A Synopsis of the Cichlid Fishes of Lake Nyasa”, Ann. Mag. nat. Hist. Ser. 10, Vol. XVI, p. 93.

The genus name Protomelas is derived from Greek and consists of two words. Protos means Primary and melas means Black. This is a reference to their black melanin pattern of horizontal and vertical bars on their sides.

The species name taeniolatus is derived from Latin. Taenia means band or ribbon, but taeniola is a diminutive of taenia, meaning small band or small ribbon; a reference to the thin black bars on their flanks.

Synonyms: Haplochromis taeniolatus, Cyrtocara taeniolata, Cyrtocara taeniolatus, Haplochromis cancellus.
Trade names: “Haplochromis Steveni”, “Haplochromis Hinderi”, “Haplochromis Boadzulu”, “Haplochromis Red Empress”, “Haplochromis Fire Blue”


You can find Protomelas taeniolatus throughout the entire Lake Malawi. Because of the vast distances they have developed local colour variations. The best-known color morph is Protomelas taeniolatus Boadzulu (or Red Empress). The funny thing is Protomelas taeniolatus around Boadzulu around Boadzulu is predominantly blue en not as red as they are sold in shops. The red-colored Red Empress can be found around Namalenje Island, we think this wrong name was given to put others on the wrong track when they tried to locate this desirable color variety.

At Boadzulu Protomelas taeniolatus is mainly blue with some red at the lower end of their caudal- and anal fins, their belly shows some yellow. At Chitande Island this yellow is even brighter but at this location, the red in the fins is lacking.

Sexing the Protomelas taeniolatus shouldn’t be too hard once they are fully grown. females are silvery/grey. On their sides, they show two dark horizontal lines, the upper one is incomplete.

Just like almost all Protomelas species, taeniolatus is usually a peaceful Malawi cichlid that ignores other species. Males however can be aggressive towards each other. Especially in the smaller aquariums it is better to keep one male with 3 or more females.

During spawning or when they are courting females the males can keep other fish at a distance. Make sure to give them plenty of room to make sure other fish can get out of the way. We recommend an aquarium of at least 200 centimeters in length.


Protomelas taeniolatus inhabits the rocky shores of lake Malawi where the sand turns into rocks. They feed on the aufwuchs growing on the rocks and spawn on the sand between the rocks.


In the wild, they mainly feed on algae. With their lips, they seal off a piece of rock hermetically. They suck in the algae and cut the algal strands with their small teeth. With these algae, they also take in some crustaceans living in the aufwuchs. They will also sift the sand looking for something to eat. So they will appreciate a sandy substrate. Whenever plankton is abundant they will feed on the plankton as well in the open water.

In the aquarium, they will need a varying diet that could contain krill, mysis shrimp, brine shrimp, flakes etc. but they will also need vegetable foods like spirulina flakes. Don’t feed them bloodworms and

The Aquarium

Because of the strong character of these fish we recommend an aquarium of at least 200 centimetres wide. Especially when mating they can keep other fish at a safe distance. My aquarium has 180 x 80 centimetres of surface area but even that was not always sufficient as he still managed to corner all other fish when mating.

Decorate the aquarium with a large flat rock or a larger patch of sand where they can spawn. Decorate the rest of the aquarium with lots of rock on the edges and open space in the middle. Create some larger piles of rock with hiding space break visual lines and make sure the females can escape the male’s attention to lower their stress.

Breeding Protomelas taeniolatus

Decorate the aquarium with a large flat rock or a larger patch of sand where they can spawn. Decorate the rest of the aquarium with lots of rock on the edges and open space in the middle. Create some larger piles of rock with hiding space do break visual lines and make sure the females can escape the males attention to lower their stress.

He tries to draw the female to his spawning location by showing his side and flare, shaking his body in short fast motions. His colors are at his best to show the female he is her best mating candidate. During spawning he glides his anal fin with egg spots over the rock, the female tries to pick up the eggs and takes in some sperm he releases. They will circle each other, the female releasing an egg, turning to pick it up, and sometimes trying to pick up the male’s egg spots and fertilizing the eggs already inside her mouth.

The female Protomelas taeniolatus broods on the eggs in her mouth. the eggs hatch after 3 to 4 days but will remain inside her mouth, feeding on their yolk-sac. After 19 to 24 days after spawning the female releases the fry, in your aquarium this usually means they will have to take care of their own from now on. In the wild, the female will take them back in their mouth for another month to protect her fry.

Just like most other Malawi cichlids, you can raise the by feeding them crushed flakes and newly hatched brine shrimp.

Raising them in a tank with their parents and other adult fish will leave you with only the strongest and smartest survive. If you want to raise the entire nest you will need an extra tank. Put the female in your raising tank when she is brooding on the fry for around 15 to 18 days. Decorate the raising tank with some rocks with a cave to create some hiding for the female and a small layer of sand as a substrate. The female will release the fry. The first couple of hours she won’t eat so the fry are safe and you will have plenty of time to put her back in the main tank. Make sure to change water often, they will grow faster and stay healthier.


Protomelas taeniolatus can be a real eye-catcher in your Lake Malawi cichlid aquarium. Especially the Red Empress variant is a real stunner. Just make sure to give them plenty of space to prevent them from bullying other fish.



John de Lange – Walter Deproost

Copyright images

John de Lange


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