April 11

Zebra pleco Appearance, Feeding and Care Guide for Aquarist


Zebra Pleco

Zebra pleco is a freshwater fish that belong to the Loricariidae family, the largest catfish group that consists of species possessing armored bony plates and suckermouth. Zebra pleco is so named for its black-and-white coloration which runs all over the body a bit in different orientations. It goes by the biological name, Hypancistruszebra, and is known by common names like zebra plecostomus and imperial pleco.

Zebra plecos are native to Brazilian waters; you will see them in abundance inRiver Rio Xingu to be precise – this river is reported to have a sandy riverbed with a considerable amount of pebbles and stones and also contains a high level of oxygen. The population of this particular species is however endangered in the wild as pollution increases.

Zebra Pleco Appearance

The body of zebra pleco is elongated while their belly is flat and their bluish eyes are relatively big. Their suckermouth is flanked by a pair of barbels on each side. They are a ray-finned type of fish with the dorsal fin having one coarse and seven soft rays, and the anal fin possessing one coarse and four soft rays. They can grow up to a length of 10 cm weighing about 4g over a 10 – 15 lifespan.


One distinctively observable behavioral trait zebra plecos are noted for is their timidity. Owing to this, they will readily go into hiding [in caves] especially during the day, and will usually make a foray to the outside during the night hence they can be categorically called nocturnal animals. Coupled with this, they are bottom-dwelling species the rarely venture to the top and middle levels of the tank.

They are quite peaceful and should not have any problem inhabiting the same tank with other species. It is however not unlikely to see zebra pleco exhibiting aggressive behavior towards its kind in a show of territoriality. In essence, it could be said that they are not really a schooling type of fish.


Zebra plecos have an omnivorous feeding inclination although they so much cherish eating foods that are rich in protein – like bloodworms, mussels, lobster eggs, tubifex, daphnia, brine shrimp, and so on; it is for this reason, they are often erroneously categorized as carnivores.

That said, you can supplement their diet with algae wafers, pellets, and veggies such as cucumber, squash boiled lettuce leaves, zucchini, skinned peas, etc.

Furthermore, they also show some scavenging tendencies by opting to feed on decaying plant matter Zebra plecos may also snack on bogwood or snags. They have a proclivity to be a bit ravenous in terms of feeding.

For the feeding frequency; they should be provided with food twice or three times daily. But you should be careful not to overstock the aquarium with feed as you have to keep the concentration of ammonia in check.

N.B: There are some key points to take note of when feeding zebra plecos. For the fact that they are used to staying at the bottom of the tank, it is essential that you supply them with feeds that will sink to the substrate of the tank. Secondly, you should chop whatever feed you are giving them into bits so that they can find the food easy to munch; making them gulp something big may result in choking.

You should also note that zebra plecos do not compete well for food; hence, it is advisable not to keep them in the same tank with other bottom-dwellers that are highly rapacious when it comes to feeding.

Zebra Pleco Care

Zebra plecos are a hardy kind of fish, but this does not mean that they are altogether undemanding. Keeping them could prove to be a little challenging; this is while they are not always recommended for beginners. For one, there is a need to keep the water in their tank clean at all times and also ensure that they are not deprived of oxygen – they can barely survive for another hour in such conditions.

Tank setup

To correctly set up a home for zebra pleco; it is expedient that will appreciate the natural habitat: they inhabit fast-moving, highly oxygenated waters hence, the very first thing that comes to mind when putting up a tank for them is getting an efficient powerhead filter.

That aside, the tank should be furnished with a sandy substrate–alternatively, you can use gravel. You should avoid using coarse sand or gravel to prevent their belly from getting bruised. And, lest I forget; the minimum size of the tank for housing zebra pleco is about 75 liters.

Even though the substrate can be left bare, you should not fail to create a lot of hiding spots for them using PVC pipes, caves, or flower pots – be mindful of providing items that are appropriate for the size of the fish.

You may also decorate the tank with stones, tree roots, driftwood, broad-leaved plants, or floating plants– these plants can be useful for blocking off sunlight.

    The lighting in the tank should be lowered or kept out altogether. Better still, you should endeavor to keep the tank at a spot with minimum sunlight penetration, probably around the corner of the room.

    Since a high level of ammonia can adversely affect oxygen concentration, you should always check its concentration [with the aid of a kit] and make sure it is maintained at 0mg/ml. Another thing you should be cognizance of is that oxygen concentration is usually lower at high temperature so, a functional aeration [and filtration] system should not be missing from your tank setup.

    Water parameters

    You should not be swayed or overwhelmed by the ‘hardy fish’ tag of zebra pleco that you forget to monitor the water chemistry of the environment in which it is dwelling. To rule out the increased probability  of predisposing your pet to any health issue arising from improper water chemistry, you should consistently maintain the following range of values:

    • Water temperature: Zebra plecos love to dwell in warm waters; hence the appropriate water temperature for them is between 26°C and 30°C
    • Water hardness: They can thrive in moderately soft water to medium-hard water so, a degree of water hardness between 5dH to 15dH should be suitable for them.
    • PH range: The pH range for zebra plecos falls between 6.0 – 7.5, that is, slightly acidic or slightly alkaline range.

     A 30% water change should be carried out every week.


    Keeping zebra plecos with relatively bigger species of fastidious eaters that occupy the same region with them is a no-no; they should not be kept in harm’s way if you wish to have them around for long. Beyond this, however, zebra plecos seem to Cherish their privacy as they may not like to share thank with others.

    Notwithstanding, you can keep them in a community tank having other freshwater fish like guppies characins, discus fish, and other non-aggressive species of reasonable or similar size. You may also choose to keep a group of 4 – 5 zebra plecos together, but make it a good mix of male and female.

    Sex differences

    Before discussing or making an attempt to breed zebra plecos, it is vital to shedding some light on how you can differentiate between the male and female sort. Let me quickly say here that sexing this particular type of fish is not as difficult as you may encounter when undertaking that of other freshwater catfishes.

    A common way to differentiate them is through their morphology. The body shape of the female is typically rounder or stouter than that of the male, although the head of the latter tends to be broader than that of the former (female).

    Besides the body shape, the hair growth – which is known as ‘interopercularodontodes’ – present on the fish’s pectoral fins is another feature that can be used in distinguishing them. The interopercularodontodes of the male are usually thicker and more pronounced on the male’s pectoral fins than the female’s.

    The pelvic fins of the male are also typically more massive than those of the female. It is worth noting that the pelvic fins of the male zebra pleco are adapted for fanning and cleaning their eggs.

    Pre-breeding conditioning

    To stimulate spawning – though the probability of having unsuccessful breeding at the first attempt cannot be ruled out – it is essential to consistently feed the pair with a protein-rich diet for about 2 – 3 weeks. You should make sure that there are a lot of caves available in the breeding tank as they are of immeasurable use during spawning.

    Also, a strong current must be maintained in the breeding tank, and the water temperature should be raised to between 28 – 30°C while the pH is set at 6.5. Keep in mind that zebra plecos are more likely to breed during the rainy season.

    It is expected that a female zebra pleco that is ready to spawn will have a fuller-than-normal belly.

    Zebra Pleco Breeding

    It is advisable to have more female zebra plecos than male in the breeding tank – a ratio of 2:1 or 3:1 is commonly recommended.

    Zebra plecos have quite an unusual breeding behavior, and this is well reflected in the privacy and intimacy displayed during the whole process. While in the breeding tank, and as it prepares for the first spawning, the male zebra pleco is seen cleaning up a choice cave and ventilating it to set the condition aright. While at it, the male blocks the entrance with his head to stop any fish from gaining entry.

    After this, he exits the cave and then invites the female in; he follows after her thus blocking off the entrance of the cave. In the cave, the pair engages in intense intimacy, which could last for days and terminates after the female must have laid all her eggs. The eggs are subsequently fertilized by the male who then expels the female from the cave.

    It should be noted that the number of eggs that a female zebra pleco is capable of laying [per spawning session] is usually dependent on age. Older ones are reported to lay more eggs than the younger ones, and they can lay eggs right from the age of two. There have even been cases where zebra plecos lay eggs at the tail-end of their life, around 15 years of age.

    The condition of the water may also affect the number of eggs that will be eventually laid. By the way; zebra plecos can lay between 10 – 15 eggs on average during a spawning session.

    Post-breeding care

    Zebra plecos have a highly commendable parental instinct with the male assuming the responsibility of looking after the fertilized eggs and continues to do so even after they are hatched. The eggs should hatch within 4 – 7 days and the emerging juvenile can attain a length of 2.5cm under three months.

    The juveniles develop pretty fast at the initial stage, but the growth rate is slowed down after that; this is why they should be provided with a highly nutritious diet as at when due. You can feed the Fry with live brine shrimp or crushed dried food.

    There is no problem keeping the fry in the same tank with their father, but to better monitor their development have, it is recommended that you keep them in a separate tank and under appropriate conditions. The water in which they are kept should have a substantial amount of dissolved oxygen and must be clean at all times – doing regular small water changes is yet crucial in this regard.


    Although zebra plecos are hardy, they are not entirely immune to certain bacterial and fungal infections which may be triggered by poor water quality or an unhealthy diet. It is on this premise that I shall now discuss some of the diseases they can be susceptible to.

    1. White spot disease: There have been cases whereby zebra plecos are downed by white spot disease – which is also known as Ich and is common to a host of freshwater fish. An infected fish will be seen to have small white spots on their fins as well as the other parts of the body.

    The fish could eventually become lethargic and will frequently rub its body against rocks and other hard surfaces that are available within the tank. White spot disease has often been treated using a combination of antimicrobial medication, along with raising the temperature of the water in the aquarium.

    2. Popeye disease: Popeye disease is a condition in which a fish’s eye is swollen, and bugles as though popping out of its socket. It can occur as a result of injury, high concentration of nitrite, and ammonia or due to the manifestation of certain infections.

    Popeye disease can be treated with Epsom salts coupled with regular water changes – about 20% water change three times every week will be enough. Antibiotics are seen as effective treatment options in some instances where the condition is linked to an infection.

    3. Fin rot: Fin rot is a bacterial infection that affects many freshwater fishes, and zebra pleco is not an exemption. The bacteria attach themselves to their host fins, and their activities get to be evident as the fins gradually become frayed.

    The bacteria could, however, spread beyond the fins to cause damage to other tissues.

    Zebra plecos affected by fin rot may experience discoloration, loss of appetite, and lethargy, and could also develop inflamed patches on their fins. This disease may result in the death of the fish if it is not treated early.

    Aquarium salt, as well as antibiotics like ciprofloxacin and doxycycline hyclate, have been widely utilized in taking care of this disease.

    4. Lymphocystis: Lymphocystisis a viral infection that affects freshwater and marine fishes. This disease could be mistaken for Ich disease at the onset as the infected fish are observed to have small white nodules on their fins and body; these would eventually aggregate to form a cauliflower-esque growth around the mouth, fins, and gills.

    A fish suffering from lymphocystis will have its skin deformed; may experience respiratory complications and secondary fungal or bacterial infection. It may also swim in an uncoordinated fashion.

    No treatment course has been discovered for completely eradicatinglymphocystis – though it does not always lead to death. On this premise, it surmises that prevention is the best bet. You should make it a point of duty to feed your pet a healthy diet and do not subject it to stress.

    Concluding remark

    Zebra plecos are indeed an adorable group of catfish that will not only add color to the home aquarium, but they also will give you some pleasurable sight with their exciting displays, especially during spawning. It is, however, unfortunate to know that their population is threatened due to environmental pollution.

    It is against this backdrop that aquarists who desire to have the need to ensure that they are well catered for; giving the required attention and care. Such acts could help preserve the population of this amazing catfish for generations yet unborn. So, count the cost to take care of this imperial pleco before hitting the pet store to acquire one.


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