Tropheops is a beautiful freshwater species endemic to Lake Malawi, one of Africa’s Great Rift lakes. Also known as the tropheops red cheek, this species is a mainstay for any fish keeper that wants a Lake Malawi cichlid aquarium.

This article will help you understand tropheops care, maintenance, and breeding.

Tropheops Stats

Listed tank sizes are the minimum

Size: Average adult size: 4” – 8” (10.16 – 20.32 cm)
Tank: 50  gallons
Strata: Middle, Bottom
pH: pH recommendation 6.0 to 9.0
Hardness: Soft to medium (will adapt to a range of specifications)
Temperature: 76 to 82°F (24 to 30°C)
Class: Actinopterygii
Order: Cichliformes
Family: Cichlidae
Genera: Tropheops
Species: T. tropheops

Origin and Appearance

Tropheops 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.”

Like most Lake Malawi cichlids, Tropheops can be found in highly rocky areas around small islands or rocky outcroppings surrounded by sand. They live in the caverns and small caves created by large rocks jumbled together. They use their strong jaws to feed on algae, small insects, or crustaceans.

The color of Tropheops can vary significantly in part from interbreeding with other Lake Malawi cichlid species. Unlike many cichlids, the female and male can display beautiful hues.

Both the males and females of the species can morph into vibrant blues, yellows, and reds with the darker striped patterns of zebra-like cichlids. This ability to change color is known as polychromatism.

The soft-rayed part of the anal fin has two or three orange egg spots. These spots become significant at mating time. The rear edge of the dorsal fin has a row of less distinct spots as well. Males tend to be larger, more colorful, and more aggressive.

Females can be muted in color and have more round body shapes. Both have fins close to the body but are very powerful swimmers. If well cared for, the tropheops lifespan can be as long as 10 years.

Tropheops Care

While not as aggressive as most Lake Malawi cichlids, Tropheops can be belligerent to other species and does best in larger aquariums with structures for them to orient to and make their territory.

Consider a 48-inch or 50-gallon aquarium the minimum size for a species tank, with an ideal size up to 250 gallons for a community tank.

As their native habitat is rock-and cave-based, setting a good base of gravel with lots of larger rocks or tilted flower pots arranged to make caves will help them feel at home. If you are planning to keep more than a few Tropheops, try to arrange the rocks and caverns to minimize the line of sight between them to limit eye contact and aggression.

The Tropheops size ranges up to nearly 8 inches, so planning caverns or turning flower pots that can hold fish that large on their side will make it easier to maintain your aquarium without drastic changes over the long term. In addition, building a few separate territories can make very nice tank displays and help keep your tropheops red cheek out of each other’s zones.

Plants are generally not a good idea for a cichlid aquarium, but Tropheops like them for shelter and an occasional nibble. Plant them sparsely if you have a cichlid or Lake Malawi community tank, so the other fish do not root them up.

The ideal pH range for a Lake Malawi cichlid aquarium is 7.5 to 8.5. To help maintain the hardness of the water, consider adding crushed coral to the gravel. Driftwood or logs are not a good idea as the tannins can lower the water pH to unacceptable levels.

Clean, hard freshwater is essential for the long-term care of Tropheops. It is recommended you double the standard filtration required for your aquarium size. This also helps with some movement in the water to ensure adequate oxygenation.

This cichlid species moves gravels by mouth to build nests for egg-laying, so underground filters can be exposed and nibbled on. If possible, the filtration system outside of the aquarium.

Tank Mates

The best tank mate for Tropheops is other Tropheops. A small group of one male to three or four females makes an excellent display with the least amount of aggression.

If you do choose to create a community tank, proper tank mate selection for Tropheops compatibility goes a long way to removing potential conflicts and keeping the overall aquarium happy and healthy.

Mixing different types or sizes of cichlids from around the world is usually not a good idea.

The Mbuna, a rock-oriented cichlid, is much better for reducing conflict, especially if you have set up territories.

Cichlid species with high aggression levels and different colorations can co-habitat with Tropheops.

These species include:

  • Auratus: Also called the golden mbuna, this is an aggressive yellow cichlid with dark horizontal stripes.
  • Johanni: The Johanni cichlid is a beautiful black fish with cyan blotches in a horizontal pattern. The females of the species are a bright yellow. They will hold their own with Tropheops.
  • Kenyi: The Kenyi or Lombardoi cichlid is a Lake Malawi variety where the females are yellow and the males are blue with black striping. They are belligerent enough to stand off other tank toughies.
  • Red Zebra: This is a vivid red and orange Mbuna cichlid with plenty of spunk. It is aggressive enough to keep other fish in their place as long as all species have some territory to call their own.

The Synodontis Catfish is also a good tank mate.


Tropheops will easily breed in captivity. If you have one male with a group of females, usually one of the females will be holding eggs in her mouth.

As with many commercially sold cichlids, the main difficulty in breeding this species is that you do not know if your fish are fertile. So many keepers and commercial houses have created species hybrids that many of the fish you buy can be sterile. If you want to breed Tropheops, make sure you purchase from a source that will guarantee the fertility of the fish they sell.

Tropheops breed year-round. The start of breeding can be observed, although often breeding behavior can be mistaken for aggression behavior, especially when you have more than one male in an aquarium. Behaviors indicative of courtship include jaw locking, nipping, fin displays, and chasing.

If you see your male Tropheops shivering or dancing, that is a very good indicator that he is trying to attract the attention of an egg-bearing female. He will try to get her to lay her eggs in his territory.

Tropheops are mouthbrooders in that the eggs are reared in the female’s mouth. As the female drops eggs, she picks them up in her mouth, with the male staying close by. Egg clutches usually contain anywhere from 10 to 30 eggs. Once she is done laying eggs, the male encourages her to follow the egg-shaped and colored spots near his anal fin so he can release sperm to fertilize the eggs held in her mouth.

As soon as the spawning is done, the male will drive the female out of his territory. If she is not bullied by other fish, she will swim freely for 10 to 15 days until the eggs hatch, and she releases the fry from her mouth. If you can, gently move egg-carrying females into a breeder tank so that the other fish in the tank do not eat the fry.

As soon as the fry has hatched, you can move the female back into the main aquarium. The fry will feed on micro foods immediately and can be introduced into tanks with similarly sized fish in a few months.


All Mbuna cichlids are herbivores, so the ideal diet for your Tropheops is plant-based. If they eat more than a little animal protein, it can cause them to bloat or die. The easiest way to feed them is with sinking, pelletized food made specifically for herbivore cichlids.

To add variety to their diet, you can augment with small pieces of lettuce, spinach, zucchini, or squash. Feeding several small meals each day will help deal with tank aggression.


  • Double the recommended filtration for your tank size to keep the water clean for
  • Tropheops and community cichlid aquariums.
  • Keep as much of the hardware and hoses out of the tank as you can so they are not chewed upon.
  • Purchase breeding stock from sellers that will certify their fertility.
  • Avoid feeding them with animal proteins.
  • Keep a ratio of one male to four or more females to encourage breeding.

Tropheops allow aquarium keepers to have colorful, low-maintenance fish kept well in community aquariums. Their bold behavior and ability to procreate easily will reward you with opportunities to expand your fish-keeping skills.

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