Thomas Andersen, 2005
Cichlid Room Companion

Beautiful as a Butterfly: Xenotilapia papilio Büscher, 1990

By , 2005. image

Classification: Captive maintenance.

" A detailed account on the reproduction of this beautiful sand dweller from lake Tanganyika, Xenotilapia papilio with stunning photographs of mouth its brooding behavior "


Xenotilapia papilio is a relatively new discovered species and were described in 1990 by the German Heinz H. Büscher. He found it while diving on the eastern side of the Lake about 40 km south of Moba, at a locality known as Tembwe Deux in DR Congo (Büscher 1990).

Xenotilapia papilio is easily distinguished from most other Xenotilapia. The head is flat and long and the mouth is hypogenous with a little snout. The color of the body is grayish beige with some silvery blue spots along the body. The ventral fins, the front of the dorsal and the anal fin have a varying degree of yellow markings. Even though X. papilio has a very small distributional range, two distinct geographical variants are known. At the type locality Tembwe Deux, the dorsal is vividly marked with black and white spots and at Kanoni, which encompass the distribution to the north the adults have yellow dorsal fins without any black markings (Konings 1998).

Adult in aquarium Xenotilapia papilio from the type locality Tembwe Deux, DR Congo in the aquarium of Marc Senaffe; France. Photo by Marc Senaffe.

Xenotilapia papilio has some resembling with Xenotilapia leptura (former Asprotilapia leptura) but while the latter has tricuspid teeth, X. papilio has bicuspid teeth and a totally different coloration and both species are found sympatric. Two undescribed Xenotilapia spp., X. sp. “papilio sunflower” and X. sp. "katete” however, has a close resembling with X. papilio. Besides minor morphological differences, the best way to tell the three apart are the different coloration of the ventral fins; in X. sp. “katete” the ventral fins are clear to light-blue, in X. sp. “papilio sunflower” always yellow and in X. papilio always more or less yellow with some black markings.

X. papilio stays rather small and the total length is recorded to be app. 10 cm. It shows no obvious sexual dimorphism, but ripe females tend to have a slightly rounder belly.

Adult at Kanoni Xenotilapia papilio at Kanoni, Lake Tanganyika Photo by Ad Konings. Determiner Ad Konings.

Xenotilapia papilio in the wild…..

Not all species of the genus Xenotilapia are sand-dwellers who roam the vast sandfloor in search of food; actually quite a few species are found in the rocky habitat, where they instead of filtering the sand, feeds from the layer of sediment that are covering the deeper laying rocks. Also in another respect are the rock-dwelling Xenotilapia different from their cousins on the sandfloor, as they are never seen gathering in large foraging schools, but are always seen in pairs or in small groups of 4-8 juveniles or adolescents (Konings 1998).

Xenotilapia papilio is one of the rock-dwelling species of this genus. Büscher caught the type specimen at only 3 meters of depth in a pure rocky habitat but Xenotilapia papilio has since then been found to normally inhabit the deeper sediment-rich rocky habitat down to a depth of 40 meters (Büscher 1990; Konings 1998). Stomach investigations have revealed small crustaceans, insect larvae and algae (Büscher 1990).

…..and in the aquarium

Xenotilapia papilio is not an easy species to keep in the aquarium. It is a very territorial cichlid with a high level of intra-specific aggression and it becomes even more territorial when breeding, but the sheer beauty of these fishes do that you forgive them.

The best way to keep these this species is by starting out with a group consisting of 5-8 individuals, in an aquarium with a length of at least 130 cm, but a bigger aquarium are preferred though. Out of this group couples will be formed, and this stage is critical for the aquarist. A newly formed couple can react very aggressively towards the other inhabitants and if any of them shows sign of stress, like loss of appetite, freight coloration or heavy breathing, they should be moved immediately; never move the newly formed couple as there is a great risk that the pair bond will break if doing so.

Hopefully things don’t turn out this way in more than one respect. Besides being hard on an aquarists nerves, there are also a great advance in keeping Xenotilapia papilio in more than one pair; the aggression will be pointed towards other couples instead of leading to quarrels among the couples themselves – a scenario often seen when a pair is kept by themselves.

The aggression is also pointed toward similar species like Xenotilapia flavipinnis and its near cousins X. sp. “papilio sunflower” and X. sp. “katete” in which X. papilio sees competition, so it’s recommendable not to keep these species in the same aquarium. Especially X. flavipinnis will have a hard time with X. papilio as tankmates, as the latter are much more aggressive. The result is likely to be that the X. flavipinnis quickly will get stressed, wither away and perish.

Xenotilapia papilio can on the other hand be kept better with some more rough species like smaller Neolamprologus than most other Xenotilapia. The aquarium should consist of some large rocks with a big surface and some small ones to make caves and hiding places; he bottom should consist of a thin layer of fine sand. It’s a good idea, especially if more than one X. papilio pair is present, to arrange the rocks so the aquarium gets divided into smaller sections and in that way reduce the visibility between the fishes – strategically placed rocks can cease the aggression a lot.

Xenotilapia papilio can be fed with frozen food like cyclops, black mosquito larvae and occasionally artemia, shrimp-mix and good quality flakes if accepted, but their diet should also encompass green fodder – if the rocks in the aquarium are covered with a nice growth of algae X. papilio will eagerly eat this. X. papilio is very sensitive towards bad water quality so it’s a must to do weekly water-changes and have sufficient filtration.


Xenotilapia papilio is a biparental mouthbrooder and in the Lake the pair defends a territory on the upper face of a large rock. They seem to stay together in this area even when not breeding (Konings 1998).

Pair spawning in aquarium
Pair spawning in aquarium
Pair spawning in aquarium
Pair spawning in aquarium Amazing photographs of a Xenotilapia papilio pair from Tembwe Deux spawning in the aquarium of Michael Näf; Switzerland. Photo © Michael Näf.

Spawning in the aquarium takes place on a quiet spot usually on the sand, often near to a rock. The initial courting before spawning is normally started by the female who tries to attract the male’s attention, erecting all fins and turning her side towards him while she circles around him. The male responds with the same gesture and the circling intensifies. The female than lays some tiny light yellow eggs in batches consisting of app. 5 eggs which are quickly fertilized by the male before they the eggs are taken in by the female. Clutch size rarely exceeds 15 eggs.

The female initially brood the eggs and larvae before they after 9-13 days are transferred to the male’s mouth. Both parents eats while mouthbrooding. Three weeks after spawning the fry are released and are still guarded by both parents for at least another two weeks. At night or when the fry are threatened they seek shelter in the mouths of the parents. The fry can easily be fed with newly hatched artemia.

Pair with fry in aquarium
Pair with fry in aquarium

Stunning photographs of a Xenotilapia papilio pair from Tembwe Deux with their fry in the aquarium of Michael Näf; Switzerland - Photo © Michael Näf.


Xenotilapia papilio is a stunning little cichlid with a fascinating behavior, but is not recommended for the beginner. It has a high level of intraspecific aggression, is sensible to stress and bad water quality and is very expensive, so if you are thinking of getting started with Xenotilapia this should not be the first fish. On the other hand it will be a great fish for the more experienced fish-keeper, and with proper care and carefully chosen tank mates, it will reward its owner with one of the most amazing modes of reproduction among the family Cichlidae; the bi-parental mouth-brooding, as so beautiful illustrated by the photographs of Michael Näf

References (2):


Andersen, Thomas. (Nov 29, 2005). "Beautiful as a Butterfly: Xenotilapia papilio Büscher, 1990". Cichlid Room Companion. Retrieved on Dec 01, 2023, from: