Zebra pleco care guide

The zebra pleco (Hypancistrus zebra “L046”) is one of the most beautiful and unusual catfish that aquarists can find on sale. However, you can find various and quite controversial information about the fish keeping, feeding and breeding. Even the history of how the fish was discovered is full of questions, despite the fact that it happened somewhere between 1970-80. Earlier, to denote the fish they used L-number – L046, but in 1991 the species got its scientific description.

Habitat in the wild

Generic name Hypancistrus originates from two Greek words “hypo” and “ἄγκιστρον”, which mean ‘lower’ and ‘hook’. Obviously, the fish obtained its generic name “zebra” due to the similarity of its coloring to black and white one of African zebra.

Zebra pleco is endemic of Brazil river Xingu, Amazon river tributary. This is a quite wide river with average temperature about 32°C. The river bed has lots of stones and pebbles of various size with small grained sand between them.

It is considered that catfish habitat is a deepwater area in the center of the river bed, because this is where Hypancistrus is caught. At that there are a lot of different cracks, caves and burrows on the river bottom, they appear due to specific rocks and water flows there. The zebra pleco hides inside these caves and cracks, that’s why some shelters like this should be present in a tank.

There are very few snags and almost no plants on the bottom and the water flow is fast, which makes the water oxygen-rich. Still there are debates among aquarists whether this species require snags in a tank or not. Since many species need wood to chew and to improve their digestion processes, it is recommend to put a small snag in a tank.

Nowadays zebra pleco is critically endangered. Due to power plant construction the habitat of the fish is pounding and future repercussions for the ecosystem are difficult to foresee. Since pounding effects river flow rate, level of water saturation with oxygen will decrease, as a result survival of the fish species will be really endangered.

Since 2004 fishing and exporting of zebra pleco (and other numbered catfishes) from Brazil was completely prohibited by the government and the fish was added to the list of endangered species.

At attempt of smuggling the breaker is penalized and it can be even imprisoned. All these measures contribute to the high price of this species.

Scientific NameHypancistrus zebra
Common NamesZebra pleco, l046 pleco, zebra catfish
Ease of keepingDifficult
Lifespan10 years and more
Tank size200 liters (52 gallons) and more
Tank typeCommunity of fishes
Temperature30-31 °C (86-87.8 °F)
Water hardness9–20 dGH
SizeUp to 6.4 centimetres (2.5 in)


In captivity these fish grow up to 8 cm (3,15 in) long, though in the wild is about 6.4 centimeters (2.5 in) long. The zebra pleco lifespan is about 10 years.

Hypancistrus zebra distinctive feature is its unusual coloring, that consists of black and white stripes due to which the fish got its name. The coloring is snow-white with bluish tint on its tale. Tar dark diagonal stripes go along its body and end on its caudal fin.

The stripes become lateral on the head and vertical on the dorsal and pectoral fins. You may encounter species with undulated and dashed black stripes on their body. The eyes are bluish. The head is quite elongated with high set eyes. If you look on the fish from above you’ll notice that its eyes are connected with wide white stripe and four lateral stripes of the same color go to the mouth.

The maxilla has seven-eight long curved teeth from each side, that bifurcate closer to the edge. There are only eight deeply bifurcated teeth on the mandible; four from each side. The fish also has 2 pairs of small barbels.

The zebra pleco has an elongated hooked pin on its premaxilla.

The anal fin consists of 1 coarse and 4 soft rays. All fins of the adult species – abdominal, dorsal, anal and tail one are also decorated with black and white stripes that go in turns.

Difficulties in keeping

Zebra pleco is quite demanding in terms of tank conditions and that’s why it’s not recommended for beginner aquarists to keep.

Care and keeping in a tank

Water parameters

The zebra pleco requires warm oxygen-rich and clean water. Perfect tank conditions will be the following: tank water temperature 30-31 °C, powerful canister filter and neutral pH value. Besides water filtration the fish also needs weekly renew of 20-25% of total tank volume.

It is important that tank water parameters and quality stay stable, otherwise any abrupt changes may cause death of your pets. If the zebra pleco changes its behavior in some way, for example, loss of appetite or extreme flaccidity – these manifestations indicate that something is wrong with tank conditions.

In this case it is recommended to renew 1/3 of the tank water with fresh one, rise its temperature up to 30 °C and perform tank water filtration using charcoal filter.

Tank size

In a tank about 25 inches long you can easily keep about 4-5 species of this catfish. If there are more fishes you’d like to keep, the tank volume should be larger. Another thing you should bear in mind, is that the larger is the tank, the easier it is to maintain tank water parameters and control how they change.

Tank decor

You can put some tank plants, but remember that the tank water temperature is quite high and not all plants can do with it. Snags and various roots are both good shelters for the fish and tank decorations, so aquarists widely use them in such tanks. Slate stones are also used to build shelters for the fish.

Zebra pleco is a nocturnal fish and it becomes active when nightfall comes. Almost all of their time spends near the tank bottom. To make sure that the zebra pleco can hide at any moment, put lots of shelters on the tank bottom. They should be of proper size to let your pets feel comfortable there. Pottery vessels, snags, stones and caves can be used for this purpose.

The number of shelters in the tank has to be larger, that that of the fish dwelling there. Shelters should be both with one exit and pass-through ones.

Tank mates

Zebra pleco has peaceful temper and as a rule they don’t show any aggression towards their tank mates. But at that they aren’t very suitable for dwelling in a community tank.

The fish needs warm water, strong water flow and high saturation of water with oxygen. Besides the fish is very timid and it’d rather refuse from food than compete for it with its more active tank mates. You can keep pleco with discus fish. They have similar biotopes, requirements for water temperature. The only thing they have different is high water flow rate that zebra pleco needs.

Perfect idea in this case is to keep a group of zebra, that consists of one male and several females. Catfishes are not aggressive and can be kept in community tanks with other peaceful species.


Zebra pleco isn’t demanding in terms of food. Unlike common catfishes, the fish prefers protein food. Though you can offer it both vegetable and protein food.

You may use peas, boiled lettuce leaves, cucumber, squash etc. as supplements to the diet. Almost all types of dry and frozen food will do as well. It is desirable to feed when the tank lighting is off, since this catfish species is a nocturnal one.

Gender differences: male vs female

Reproductive males have larger and wider head, than that of the females and their odontodes (interopercular spines) on the first rays of pectoral fins and behind their gill covers are more pronounced.

The zebra pleco female is smaller in size, but it has more rounded body (especially those, that have eggs inside). However, it is difficult to see between juveniles males and females.


Zebra pleco becomes reproductive at the age of 2-4 years old. Except tank water temperature and flow, availability of proper shelters is a crucial factor that influences the breeding process. The tube has to correspond to the breeders size.

Tank water temperature can’t be lower than 25°C. Aeration should be increased. As for the breeders, they should be kept in a small group of 5-6 species.

Several zebra pleco females may spawn simultaneously with the same male – this depends on how experienced and mature the male is. Number of eggs is directly proportional to the age and size of the female fish. Young female fish as a rule lays about 5-6 eggs, but the adult one can lay up to 25 eggs.

Time interval between the spawning varies and it depends on the diet and tank water parameters. Some couples breed once or twice a year with large pauses between the spawning, others are capable of breeding more often.

The eggs are quite large. How the eggs develop depends on the water temperature – the higher it is, the faster the embryon grows. The temperature also influences the further rate of the juveniles growth.

In about two weeks the zebra pleco juveniles grow to be 1.5 mm long and they can feed themselves. At this moment you can offer them live brine shrimp or milled dry food as a diet to start with.

You can grow zebra pleco juveniles both in a tank together with their parents and in a separate volume. However, it is preferable to put the juveniles in a separate tank, since this way it is easier to control how they feed and maintain stable water parameters.

Juveniles grow very slow and usually they are about 5 cm long at the age of 12 months.

It is crucial to provide the juveniles with sufficient feeding, which will ensure higher rate of their growth. Daily renew of the tank water with fresh one with similar parameters, is a must when growing juveniles.