Pam Chin, 2002
Cichlid Room Companion

Tropheus: Fear Factor

By , 2000. image

Classification: Captive maintenance, Lake Tanganyika.

Tropheus duboisi 'Halembe'

Tropheus duboisi "Halembe" colony in the aquarium of Pam Chin. Photo by Pam Chin.

I don't know what it is about the genus Tropheus, but they are definitely one of the most fascinating and fun fish to come out of Lake Tanganyika. Fun you say? Or could that just be a sick definition, especially after killing off a tank, or as in my case a tank or two!

Sometimes I think I am the only person that has ever killed Tropheus, in reality I am the only person that will admit it!!! There is nothing more embarrassing then getting the same type of Tropheus with a friend and then you are the first one to kill them off. But, that hasn't seemed to stop me, from wanting more. I am truly a Tropheus glutton. I have learned from my mistakes, and I have gotten better with time, but just when I think I know it all, these darn Tropheus will pull a new one.

Tropheus are definitely one of the most fascinating and fun fish to come out of Lake Tanganyika

It doesn't matter which species you want to work with, as they are all basically the same when it comes to maintenance, diet and spawning. Pick the one you like the best, whether you go for outstanding color or just a plain brown you will not regret it. There isn't one better than other, it really depends on your personal preferences. I love them all, I have a group of Tropheus duboisi "halembe" coming up, and they have been so much fun. They have a nice contrast in color with their black body, and the extra wide yellow band. And I am going through a Tropheus moorii phase right now too, after seeing them in the wild, I wanted to bring them all home especially the "red rainbow." And what would be my all time favorite? Well that would have to be my group of Tropheus brichardi "kipili," talk about a tight knit pack, they are more entertaining than anything on TV, I can watch them for hours.

I think what is most fascinating to me is the social structure of the group itself. I like to buy them young, and unsexable, around 24 or more, and place them in an 300 - 380 liter (80 - 100 gallon) tank, and just walk away from them. What that means is let them be, don't move them around, don't add any tank mates, make this a species only tank. Along with frequent water changes and veggie only foods, you will be amazed at how fast they will grow. Let their pecking order be defined, and before you know it you literally have a social community, which consists of a tightly bonded group. Everybody knows everybody, and everyone has there own position. Jaw locking and chasing is still going to happen, but larger tanks provide a place for everyone to call their own, and larger groups prevent one fish from getting singled out. You can do it with smaller groups and smaller tanks, but it is going to be harder.

The type of filtration you use is really not an issue as long as you have plenty of it. I just happen to be using an under gravel filters with powerheads, because that is what I have on most of my large tanks. My husband is a cheapskate, but he is right, it probably is the most economic way to go. You may think this type of a set up is primitive, and old fashion but you can't beat a UG filter with powerheads, it is a proven method. You could always spend more money on a fancy smancy filter, or buy more Tropheus!

Some people prefer outside filters and a sandy substrate scattered on the bottom, this will work too. You can put rocks all across the tank or you can split your rocks in piles to the sides of the aquarium. It is not how you decorate your tank or what method of filtration you use that is the secret to keeping Tropheus. The key to the game is what I call "preventative maintenance." If you stay ahead of your water changes, and provide the right foods, you will be successful. It is time to take some of the Tropheus budget and buy a Python water changer, or make your own. Get over it; water changes are part of fish keeping and an important factor when keeping Tropheus.

In addition to immaculate water conditions, the pH should be in the high 8's or low 9's. I am not saying they won't survive in a lower pH, or even breed, but with the optimum conditions they will be more active, have better color and larger healthier spawns. Temperature can also be a factor; I think it is best to keep them around 24° - 26° Celsius (76 - 78 F). I must admit that I was very surprised at the temperature in Lake Tanganyika as it was much warmer than I had imagined. However, I think that higher temperatures make them more aggressive, shorten their life span, and it can also compromise your water conditions. A steady temperature is also important, the up and down fluctuation is not good for them.

Their diet is easy, a spirulina based flake or pellet with a vegetable filler like soy, or wheat germ. I don't like any warm animal parts in the foods that I feed to any of my fish. Don't let them guilt you into feeding them foods that they don't need. If you want to give them a treat, I suggest feeding them lettuce, frozen green peas, or seaweed paper. Occasionally I will feed homemade food made from peas and shrimp. It might take them a couple of times before they catch on, but then it will be a feeding frenzy. Think of food for Tropheus as one factor that you have total control over providing you can control yourself.

It is easy to overfeed your Tropheus; it is best to only feed once or twice a day, and no more than they can eat in a couple minutes. If any of the food makes it to the bottom of the tank, then you have fed way too much. This is the biggest mistake that hobbyists make, it is much better to underfeed this species, than overfeed. It was evident in the lake that, they are constantly grazing on the rocks, this is all they do, all day long. Encourage the algae to grow on the back of your tank and rocks, so they have something to graze on. I really think this keeps them busy and cuts down on the chasing. As long as it is green it is good for your fish.

Grow your own spirulina algae by adding spirulina spores, to your tank that you can buy at the health food store. Leave your lights on all the time for a couple of weeks, and it is possible to get a good growth of super green algae growing on the rocks and the back of your tank. If you add light bulbs, hopefully you can keep the algae growing faster than the fish can eat it. The fish might eat some of this spirulina powder, when you add it to your tank but it doesn't hurt them. If you have rocks with algae in other tanks that is not being eaten, then for heaven sakes rotate the rocks around your Tropheus will love you for it.

Tropheus bring with them two death cards: aggression and bloat

Tropheus bring with them two death cards: aggression and bloat. These are the two main reasons for Tropheus deaths in our tanks, both of which are totally controllable. Aggression among these fish can be unbelievable, they have a mouth full of teeth, that are the rasping type and they can de-scale another fish in moments. If you ever see individuals up in the corners of your tank, you better get them out, because they usually don't last long after that. Higher temperatures and poor water conditions can contribute to aggression, just another reason to keep your water changes frequent and massive. If you keep them in large enough tank and a large group, you don't need dither fish, which can sometimes cause more problems. Raising up a young group rather than buying adults is another key to less aggression, when they grow up together they learn to tolerate each other better.

The problem with bloat is that there really isn't a black and white definition of it. When a hobbyist starts losing fish and they don't know what the cause is, they usually say it was bloat. What we do know is that stress appears to be the common denominator. The stress can be caused from poor water conditions, wrong diet, aggressive tank mates, undersized tank, wrong pH, wrong temperature, etc., and when you have a couple of these problems it seems to be a recipe for trouble. Tropheus are worry warts, and any change in their normal routine can trigger stress, like changes in their diet, deteriorating water conditions, moving a long established group to a new tank, or the introduction of other fish whether they are the same species or not.

So, is it a parasite, a bacteria or a blockage?? Actually it might be one or all. What seems to happen is when the fish is under some type of stress, it causes a break down in the immunity system and this can cause all sorts of problems. For example:

  1. Parasites/pathogens/flagellates already in the fishes system can bloom, and multiply extremely fast, and since the fish is stressed, it can't fight this off, like they normally would.
  2. Sometimes it starts with the slime coat breaking down, which could be caused by a bacterial infection.
  3. Over feeding is a big factor along with feeding the wrong foods, which can cause digestive problems and/or blockages in the intestinal track.
  4. Other times fish can get what I call reverse bloat, where they actually look like their stomachs are sucked in, and they appear to be starving to death.

Recognizing the early signs of bloat is a big factor in being able to diagnose it. I have only been able to cure it at the earliest stages with Clout. Why Clout works is a debate, as it is a parasitic medicine, but this is the only medication that I have found that works for me. If your first round with Clout doesn't seem to work, there are many who have been known to double the dosage and treat again. At this point what do you have to lose?

Observing your fish, so that you can get a jump on it is critical. Not eating seems to be the first symptom to bloat, but so are stringy white feces, along with vent inflammation, fins clamped tight to the body, and not swimming. Usually once the fish has actually bloated, with the scales sticking out, not just a swollen belly, it is usually too late, their dead. I have killed quite a few Tropheus before I was able to figure this out, now I can see it a mile away.

Once your group matures, it will only be a matter of time before nature takes its course. It may take the young females a few times before they hold to term, which is usually about 21- 28 days. Give them a chance and they will figure it out. Once I have the group established and spawning, then once a month or so, when I am doing a weekly water change to the tank, I will check each female to see if they are holding. Then it depends on how hard you want to work at it whether you want to tumble the eggs, or only strip the fry that is further along and don't require tumbling. I am a lazy aquarist and tumbling can be hard work, I usually take them if the heads and tails have popped out, at this stage around 14 days post spawn, you don't have to use a tumbler. You can even let the females spit in the tank, and then periodically remove these fry. I have never seen adult Tropheus attempt to eat the fry, if not removed eventually they will merge into the group. I like to feed the fry freshly hatched baby brine shrimp until they are at least 2.5 to 4.0 cm (1 to 1-1/2".) After that it is green foods only.

Since Tropheus are maternal mouth brooders, and spawns are small there never seems to be too many of them on the market, and with a good size group, you can easily help support your habit. Most hobbyists will gladly trade anything they have for any kind of Tropheus!

Remember that you have nothing to fear, you are the one who is in control, with a regular schedule for water changes, the proper foods and a little common sense, there shouldn't be any fear factor with Tropheus. Dedicate a tank to your favorite species, and regularly observe your group. By getting to know them, you can keep up with what is going on in your Tropheus community.

The facts are that Tropheus may be a bit more difficult than other Rift Lake Cichlids, and it is true that they are not as forgiving. But, don't let that stop you from giving them a try, as they really are a fun and fascinating group of cichlids to work with!

Tropheus sp. 'Blood'

Tropheus sp. "Blood" colony in the aquarium of Pam Chin. Photo by Pam Chin.


Chin, Pam. (Apr 26, 2004). "Tropheus: Fear Factor". Cichlid Room Companion. Retrieved on Sep 23, 2023, from: