Emperor Cichlid (Boulengerochromis microlepis): Care Guide

Emperor Cichlid

The Emperor Cichlid (Boulengerochromis microlepis), also known as Giant Cichlid, is a fascinating species of fish native to the waters of Lake Tanganyika in East Africa. Renowned for being the largest cichlid in the world, it can reach up to 36 inches (90 cm) in length. This species exhibits a remarkable coloration that changes from a vibrant blue to a deep yellow as they age, making them a highly sought-after species among aquarium enthusiasts. 

Emperor Cichlids are known for their complex social behaviors and advanced parental care, where both parents aggressively defend their territory and nurture their young. These fish are monogamous, pairing for life, and their breeding rituals include intricate dances and displays to strengthen their bonds. 

Their diet in the wild primarily consists of smaller fish, showcasing their prowess as apex predators within their ecosystem. The Emperor Cichlid’s unique combination of size, beauty, and behavior make it a subject of interest not only for hobbyists but also for scientists studying evolutionary biology and ecology.

Common Name(s)Emperor Cichlid, Giant Cichlid
Scientific NameBoulengerochromis microlepis
OriginLake Tanganyika, Africa
Temperature76°F to 82°F (24°C to 28°C)
SizeCan grow up to 36 inches (90 cm) in the wild, but typically smaller in tanks
Minimum Tank SizeAt least 200 gallons (757 liters) for a single pair
Food & DietOmnivorous – prefers a varied diet including pellets, live, and frozen foods
LifespanUp to 10 years in captivity, depending on care
Water pH7.8 to 9.0
Tank MatesBest kept with similarly sized fish; avoid small fish that can be eaten
BreedingSubstrate spawner; parental care is strong, with both parents guarding the nest
Common DiseasesSusceptible to typical freshwater ailments but relatively hardy

Emperor Cichlid Care

While Emperor Cichlids are admired for their striking appearance and impressive size, they are not considered the easiest fish to care for due to their specific needs and large tank requirements. 

Emperor Cichlids are relatively hardy in terms of health, able to adapt to a range of water conditions, but their care complexity lies in their need for spacious environments and specific diet. They require a minimum tank size of 200 gallons to accommodate their large size and territorial nature. 

A diet rich in proteins and occasional live foods is necessary for their well-being. Additionally, their aggressive behavior towards other fish means they should only be kept with similarly sized and tempered species. 

While hardy, their care demands extensive preparation and maintenance, making them more suitable for experienced aquarium hobbyists.

Food & Diet

Here are some general guidelines for Emperor Cichlid’s diet and feeding:

Diet Requirements

  • Variety is Key: Emperor Cichlids thrive on a varied diet. This ensures they receive a wide range of nutrients necessary for their health, coloration, and growth. A mix of high-quality commercial foods and fresh or frozen foods is ideal.
  • Protein-Rich Foods: As primarily piscivorous (fish-eating) in the wild, their diet should be rich in protein. Suitable options include:
    • Fresh or frozen fish
    • Shrimp
    • Krill
    • Squid
    • Bloodworms
  • Vegetables: While protein should form the bulk of their diet, incorporating vegetables can aid in digestion and provide essential vitamins and minerals. Options include:
    • Spirulina
    • Blanched spinach
    • Zucchini
    • Peas (shelled)
  • Commercial Foods: High-quality commercial foods formulated for cichlids or large carnivorous fish can be a convenient part of their diet. Look for foods that are high in protein and have added vitamins and minerals. Pellets and sticks that sink are often preferred.
  • Calcium for Bone Health: Given their size and skeletal structure, ensuring they receive adequate calcium is important. This can often be achieved through a combination of commercial foods and the occasional offering of foods like cuttlebone pieces (for tanks without invertebrates that could be harmed).

Feeding Guidelines

  • Frequency: Adult Emperor Cichlids should be fed once or twice a day. Juveniles require more frequent feeding, up to three times a day, to support their growth.
  • Portion Size: Offer only as much food as they can consume in a few minutes. Overfeeding can lead to water quality issues and health problems.
  • Supplements: Depending on the primary diet, vitamin and mineral supplements may be beneficial, especially if fresh foods are less frequent in their diet.

Ensuring a balanced diet that mimics their natural feeding habits as closely as possible will help maintain your Emperor Cichlids’ health and vibrancy. Always adapt feeding practices to your specific fish, observing their responses and adjusting as necessary.

Temperature & Water Parameters

To properly care for Emperor Cichlids in an aquarium setting, maintaining the right temperature and water parameters is crucial for their health and well-being. Here are the general guidelines:


The optimal temperature range for Emperor Cichlid is 76°F to 80°F (24°C to 27°C). Maintaining a stable temperature within this range is important, as drastic changes can stress these fish.

Water Parameters

  • pH Level: 7.8 to 9.0
  • Hardness: 8 to 25 dGH (degrees of General Hardness)
  • Alkalinity: High

Lake Tanganyika is known for its hard and alkaline water, so replicating these conditions in the aquarium is vital for the health of Emperor Cichlids.

Additional Considerations

Regular water changes are important to remove nitrates and other waste products, while also keeping the water parameters stable. A schedule of 10-20% weekly or 25-50% monthly water changes is often recommended, depending on tank size and stocking levels.

While these guidelines provide a good starting point, the specific needs of your fish may vary based on factors like tank size, stocking density, and individual health. It’s always a good idea to regularly test your water parameters using a reliable aquarium test kit and adjust as necessary to keep your Emperor Cichlids healthy and thriving.

Tank Size & Tank Setup

Due to its size and requirements, setting up a proper tank for Emperor Cichlids require careful consideration of several factors. Here’s a detailed guide on the tank size and setup:

Tank Size

  • Minimum Tank Size: For a single pair of Emperor Cichlids, a minimum tank size of 200 gallons is recommended. However, considering their potential size (up to 36 inches in length) and territorial nature, larger tanks are highly recommended.
  • For Groups: If you plan to keep more than a pair or include other species, significantly larger tanks are necessary, often exceeding 500 gallons. This provides ample space for territorial claims and reduces aggression.

Tank Setup

  • Filtration: Strong filtration is crucial to handle the bioload of such large fish and to keep the water clean and oxygen-rich. External canister filters or sump systems are recommended for efficiency.
  • Substrate: A sandy substrate is preferred to mimic their natural habitat.
  • Rocks and Caves: Provide plenty of rock formations and caves to allow for natural territorial behaviors and hiding spots.
  • Open Swimming Areas: Ensure there are large open areas for swimming, as Emperor Cichlids are active and need space to move freely.
  • Lighting: Moderate lighting is sufficient, aiming to replicate the natural light conditions of their habitat.
  • Plants: While plants are not a natural part of their lake environment, hardy, anchored plants can be added for aesthetic purposes. However, the focus should be on rockwork and open spaces.

Setting up a tank for Emperor Cichlids is a significant commitment, requiring a large space and specific conditions to ensure their health and well-being. Proper planning and maintenance are crucial to providing a suitable environment for these magnificent fish.

Behavior & Temperament

Here are some key points about Emperor Cichlid’s behavior and temperament:

Social Behavior

  • Territorial: Like many cichlids, Emperor Cichlids are highly territorial, especially during breeding periods. They require ample space to establish territories, which is crucial for their well-being in captivity.
  • Monogamous Pairing: They typically form monogamous pairs and are known for their strong pair bonds, often staying close to their partner while patrolling their territory.
  • Parental Care: Both parents exhibit highly protective and caring behaviors towards their offspring. They are known for their diligent care, including guarding the eggs, fanning them to provide oxygen, and escorting the fry around once they hatch.


  • Aggressive: Their large size and territorial nature contribute to their aggressive temperament, particularly towards other fish encroaching on their territory. This trait necessitates careful consideration when planning tank mates or community aquariums.
  • Interactive: Despite their aggression, they can be surprisingly interactive with their human caretakers, often recognizing and responding to them.


Because of their size and temperament, they are best kept with other large, similarly tempered species that can hold their own without provoking unnecessary aggression. Smaller, more passive fish are likely to be bullied or considered prey.

The Emperor Cichlid is a fascinating species for experienced aquarists who can meet their needs for space, compatible tank mates, and specific water conditions. Their complex behaviors, strong pair bonds, and parenting skills make them interesting and rewarding to keep, albeit with the challenge of managing their territorial aggression. Properly cared for, they can be a centerpiece in a large, species-appropriate aquarium setup.

Tank Mates

When choosing tank mates for an Emperor Cichlid, several factors need to be considered, including size, temperament, and environmental needs.

Here are some general guidelines and suggestions for selecting tank mates for Boulengerochromis microlepis:

  • Size Compatibility: Given the large size of the Emperor Cichlid, which can reach up to 36 inches (90 cm) in captivity, tank mates should also be of a size that will not make them easy targets for bullying or being eaten. Large catfish, other large cichlids, and some species of robust characins can be considered.
  • Temperament: The Emperor Cichlid is a territorial and sometimes aggressive species, especially during breeding. Tank mates should be chosen that can hold their own without being overly aggressive to the point of stressing or harming the Emperor Cichlid. Semi-aggressive to aggressive species that are not known to be fin-nippers or excessively hostile may be suitable.
  • Environmental Needs: Any potential tank mate must thrive under similar water conditions as the Emperor Cichlid. This includes water temperature, pH, and hardness. The Emperor Cichlid is native to Lake Tanganyika, so species from the same or similar environments may adapt well.
  • Space Requirements: Emperor Cichlids require a lot of space, not just because of their size but also to accommodate their territorial nature. A very large aquarium (several hundred gallons) is necessary when housing them with other fish to ensure enough space for all species to establish territories and reduce stress.
  • Specific Recommendations: Some potential tank mates might include:
    • Other large Tanganyikan cichlids that can match the Emperor’s size and temperament without direct competition for territory.
    • Large catfish species that are peaceful but can defend themselves if necessary.
    • Certain large characins that are peaceful and can live in similar water conditions.

It’s important to note that even with careful selection, the introduction of new fish to an aquarium with an Emperor Cichlid should be monitored closely for signs of aggression or stress. Adjustments may be necessary, including rearranging the aquarium to break up established territories or even removing incompatible species.

Given the specific needs of Boulengerochromis microlepis and the challenges in keeping them with other fish, consulting with experienced aquarists or professionals is highly recommended before making any decisions on tank mates.

Common Disease & Health Issues

Proper care and a well-maintained aquarium are crucial to prevent many of these conditions. Here are some common health issues and diseases that Emperor cichlids may face:

  • Ichthyophthirius multifiliis (Ich or White Spot Disease): Manifested as small, white cysts on the skin, fins, and gills, Ich is a highly contagious parasitic infection. It’s often caused by stress from poor water conditions or sudden changes in temperature.
  • Bacterial Infections: These can present in various forms, such as fin rot, mouth fungus, and ulcers on the body. Poor water quality and injuries can make fish more susceptible to bacterial infections.
  • Fungal Infections: Appearing as cotton-like growths on the fish’s body, mouth, or fins, fungal infections can develop on wounds or in conjunction with other diseases.
  • Parasitic Infections (besides Ich): Other parasites, such as skin flukes (gyrodactylus) and internal worms, can affect Emperor cichlids. Symptoms include excessive slime production, scratching against objects, and lethargy.
  • Malawi Bloat: Though more commonly associated with African Rift Lake cichlids, Emperor cichlids can also be susceptible. Symptoms include swelling of the abdomen, loss of appetite, and rapid breathing. It’s thought to be caused by dietary problems or internal parasites.
  • Hole-in-the-Head Disease: This condition causes pits or holes on the fish’s head and is believed to be caused by dietary deficiencies, poor water quality, or a combination of both.

Prevention and Treatment:

  • Water Quality: Maintaining high water quality is crucial. Regular water changes, proper filtration, and monitoring of water parameters (pH, temperature, ammonia, nitrites, and nitrates) can prevent many diseases.
  • Quarantine New Fish: New additions to the aquarium should be quarantined to prevent the introduction of diseases.
  • Balanced Diet: Offering a varied and balanced diet can help prevent nutritional deficiencies and bolster the fish’s immune system.
  • Medications: Specific treatments are available for most of the diseases mentioned above, including antiparasitic treatments, antibiotics, and antifungal medications. Always follow the instructions carefully and consider consulting a veterinarian specialized in fish if the situation does not improve.

Early detection and treatment are key to managing health issues in Emperor cichlids. Keeping a close eye on your fish for any signs of distress or disease can help ensure they live a long and healthy life.


Native to the African Great Lakes, particularly Lake Tanganyika, Emperor Cichlids display a unique set of behaviors during their breeding cycle. Here’s a detailed look into their mating behaviors and some tips on how to breed them in captivity.

Mating Behavior of Emperor Cichlids

  • Territoriality and Courtship: Emperor Cichlids become highly territorial during the breeding season. Males exhibit vibrant colors to attract females and to ward off rivals. Courtship involves a series of displays, including flaring fins, lateral displays to show off their size and color, and swimming in intricate patterns to gain the attention of a potential mate.
  • Pair Bonding: Unlike many fish species, Emperor Cichlids form monogamous pairs for the breeding season, and sometimes these pairs may last for several seasons. They show a high degree of cooperation in nest building, defending their territory, and raising their offspring.
  • Nest Building: The pair will choose a suitable spot, usually a flat rock or a cleared area on the substrate, to lay their eggs. The male often takes the lead in cleaning the surface, while the female assists.
  • Spawning: Once the nest is prepared, the female lays her eggs, and the male fertilizes them externally. Emperor Cichlids are known for their large clutch sizes, often numbering in the hundreds.
  • Parental Care: Both parents exhibit a high degree of parental care. They fiercely defend the nest from potential predators, including other tank mates. They also fan the eggs with their fins to provide oxygen and remove debris.

Breeding Emperor Cichlids in Captivity

Breeding Emperor Cichlids in an aquarium setting requires attention to several key factors:

  • Tank Conditions: A large aquarium is necessary due to their size and territorial nature, with at least 200 gallons being recommended for a breeding pair. The water conditions should mimic their natural habitat in Lake Tanganyika, with a pH between 7.8 and 9.0, hardness between 10-20 dGH, and a temperature range of 76-82°F (24-28°C).
  • Diet: Provide a varied diet of high-quality cichlid pellets, live or frozen foods like brine shrimp and bloodworms, to ensure they are in optimal health for breeding.
  • Environment: Include plenty of rock formations and flat surfaces for potential nesting sites. The tank should also have open areas for swimming and territories.
  • Pair Formation: It’s often best to start with a group of juveniles and allow them to pair off naturally as they mature. Forced pairings are less likely to be successful.
  • Monitoring and Support: Once eggs are laid, monitor the water quality closely and consider increasing aeration and filtration to maintain optimal conditions. Some breeders remove other fish from the tank to reduce stress and potential threats to the eggs and fry.
  • Rearing Fry: The fry are relatively large and can be fed finely crushed flake food, baby brine shrimp, or specially formulated fry food. Keeping the fry in a separate tank can protect them from being eaten by other tank mates and allows for more targeted care.

Breeding Emperor Cichlids can be a rewarding experience due to their complex behaviors and the care they exhibit towards their offspring. However, it requires a commitment to maintaining the right environmental conditions and a willingness to accommodate their needs throughout the breeding process.

How Much Do Emperor Cichlids Cost? 

The cost of Emperor Cichlids can range from $28.00 to $130.00, depending on the various factors such as size, condition, and retailer. Depending on whether the fish is captive-bred or wild-caught, this can impact their price as well. 

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