Zebra plecos are gorgeous, relatively hardy fish. However, they have specific needs that should be considered before paying the hefty price they command.
The zebra plecostomus or Imperial zebra (Hypancistrus zebra) is a stunning fish. With crisp black and white barber-pole lines running down the length of its body, it stands out among plecos and is arguably one the most striking species of freshwater tropical fish available in the hobby today. Despite this attractiveness, however, they are not commonly found in pet stores and when they are available, generally via the internet, they fetch very high prices. But putting cost aside, there are other characteristics of the zebra pleco that an aquarist should know before buying one.
Water Parameters and Aquarium Setup
Zebra plecos originate from the Xingu River in Brazil, a tributary to the Amazon River. In this fast-moving river habitat, the temperatures are warm, the water is well-oxygenated and the substrate is devoid of vegetation. To replicate these conditions, the aquarist should provide an aquarium with either a bare or sandy bottom, plenty of rocks and caves, good water current, and water temperatures between 82 and 85 degrees Fahrenheit. In addition, to mitigate the fact that warm water holds less oxygen than cooler water, it is advisable to supply supplemental aeration with an air stone or venturi powerhead.
The zebra pleco’s home water also tend to be soft and slightly acidic, and mimicking these conditions appear crucial to encourage breeding. Nevertheless, for the purposes of maintenance, zebra plecos can adapt to and thrive in a wide range of water conditions, even relatively hard, alkaline water. Overall, zebra plecos are relatively hardy and not picky about water parameters so long as the water is kept warm and the tank is properly cycled before the fish are introduced.
Feeding Your Zebra Pleco
Unlike the more common plecos found in local pet stores, the zebra is a meat eater and will not feed on the algae in your tank. This species instead prefers meaty fare, like frozen bloodworms, beef heart, krill/shrimp and prepared foods made specifically for carnivorous fish, such as Hikari “Carnivore Pellets.” Still, some vegetable matter, like algae wafers and blanched zucchini, may be taken to some degree and is beneficial to round out their diet.
Zebras are not aggressive eaters and can easily be outcompeted for food in a community tank. And this temerity is exacerbated by the fact that zebras are predominantly nocturnal, and rarely eat with the lights on. To accommodate this behavior, particularly for newly-acquired fish, sinking food should be offered just before turning the lights off at night.
Given the zebra’s timid nature, inability to compete for food and need for very warm water — warmer than most other tropical fish — it is not a good community aquarium fish. However, many keepers have reported success in keeping zebras with guppies, cardinal tetras and other peaceful warm water fish that occupy the upper strata of the aquarium and can tolerate some current. Of course, if breeding is anticipated, a species-only tank is highly recommended to avoid predation of the fry.
Breeding can occur in pairs but is best accomplished by keeping a small group of zebras in a tank with good current and numerous small caves made out of rocks, pipes, slate or other materials sized to fit the height and width of the male with his dorsal and pectoral fins extended. To trigger breeding, it is advisable to simulate the rainy season by replacing roughly a third of the aquarium water with very soft (e.g., reverse osmosis or distilled) relatively cooler water (78-80 degrees Fahrenheit) adjusted to a pH of around 6.5. The tank should then be warmed up gradually to 85 degrees Fahrenheit. If all goes well, spawning will take place in one of the caves and the male will guard and tend to the developing clutch.
Zebra Plecos are Extremely Shy
If there is only one thing that a prospective zebra owner should know before buying one it is this: zebra plecos are exceptionally shy, even by pleco standards. Even fish that have been in aquaria for months or years tend to remain secluded in rock crevices or under other objects during the day, and even when they do venture out, generally during feeding time, dash quickly back undercover at the slightest vibration or movement. Indeed, this is a common source of frustration for many new zebra owners. A good way to deal with this is to get them gradually accustomed to feeding with the lights on by offering food on a regular schedule, first with the lights off and then with the lights on. Patience is key. Regardless, most long-time keepers of the zebra pleco have learned to accept this species’ shyness and remain content knowing that they have such a beautiful, rare fish thriving in their home aquarium.