Zebra Pleco Care: Size, Price, Tank Mates…

The Zebra Pleco is a very rare type of Pleco Catfish. Unlike most other Plecos, the Zebra is very small and versatile. They can fit into smaller tank setups that other Pleco Catfish cannot.

However, due to their natural habitat, they require very specific conditions. This beautiful black and white Catfish is also very hard to find for sale.

If you are thinking about keeping the Zebra Pleco then keep reading to learn everything you need to know…

Zebra Pleco

Overview

The Zebra Pleco (Hypancistrus zebra) is an interesting Catfish from the Loricariidae family.

They are also known as Imperial Pleco, Emperor Peckoltia, L046, or L098.

These fish are popular with niche hobbyists because of their black and white stripes. However, Zebra Plecos are expensive fish that require very specific water parameters and care. They are endemic to the Xingu River in Brazil, and a full grown Zebra Pleco reaches between 3 and 4 inches in length.

The species was classified as endangered in 2004 and restrictions were placed on its sale and trade. The only legal specimens available for sale are bred in captivity. Finding this fish for sale can be very challenging. When one does become available, they will sell out very quickly.

Expect a price of $150 to $400 per Zebra Pleco.

Also be very aware of the fish’s L-numbers, as many lookalikes exist and can be mislabeled.

Key Facts:

  • Experience Required: Intermediate.
  • Nicknames: Imperial Pleco, Emperor Peckoltia.
  • Color Forms: Black and white.
  • Size: 3-4 inches.
  • Tank Size: Minimum 20+ gallon.
  • Tank Temperature: 80°F-88°F.

Zebra Pleco Appearance and Size

The Zebra Pleco is named after their beautiful black and white stripes. The stripes can be complete or incomplete, and the thickness can vary.

Their L-numbers are chosen based on the thickness of the stripes.

  1. L046: This is the most common variation, with thick, complete black bands.
  2. L098: On this variant, the black bands are jagged and incomplete in some spots. This one is more difficult to find.

This striped pattern covers their entire body, including all 6 of the fins.

They have a short triangular dorsal fin, a V-shaped caudal fin, and a pair of pectoral and pelvic fins that flare out from the Zebra Pleco’s body. When you look at them from overhead, their pectoral and pelvic fins look like butterfly wings.

This suckermouth Catfish is built for swimming along the riverbed rather than free swimming. Their body is long and their underside is smooth and flat. Their mouth is positioned underneath the head and is flanked by tiny barbels used for feeling around the substrate.

You will also notice some tiny, bristly appendages on your Zebra Pleco’s cheeks (similar to Bristlenose Plecos). These are called odontodes and they appear when the fish is sexually mature. Both male and females have odontodes, but the males’ are much longer than the females’.

Zebra Plecos have large black and white eyes that blend in with their striped pattern.

Adult Plecos reach about 3 to 4 inches but are considered mature once they reach 2.5 inches.

Males will have thinner bodies, with very wide heads. Females have thicker bodies with a curved shape from the head to the dorsal fin. Their heads are also slightly smaller and less triangular in shape.

Habitat and Tank Conditions

The Zebra Pleco lives in rocky caves at the bottom of the Xingu River, in murky areas where the light is shaded out. In this river the substrate is enriched by nutrients from plant material and volcanic rock, and small foods like worms and algae can be found in the crevices of the rocks.

The water temperature is between 80-90°F at any given time, and the currents move quickly so the water is well oxygenated. You will need to match this natural habitat almost perfectly in your home aquarium and this can be challenging.

Zebra Pleco Close Up

Ideal Tank Set Up

Your Zebra Pleco will need at least a 20 gallon tank.

The temperature can range from 80-88°F, though you will want to aim for around 82-86°F.The pH can range from 6.0 to 7.5, and the water hardness should be between 5 and 10 dGH. The substrate should be made of soft sand or fine gravel, enriched with a bit of leaf litter if possible.

Oxygenation is the most important part of their tank set up.

You should have a steady stream of oxygen flowing in from all directions. Use a canister or high power internal filter with adjustable flow, and keep the current moving as quickly as possible. Add an aerator or a waterfall to add even more oxygen to your water column.

The light at the bottom of the aquarium should be dim. Aim for less than 3 watts per gallon as your Zebra Pleco is not likely to come out until the aquarium lights are off.

For decoration you will need to use rocks and boulders. Place them to create miniature caves at the bottom of the tank. In addition to plain rocks, you can use rock arches, shelves, and walls to create caves for your fish to live in. You can also use hollow logs, PVC pipes, and flower pots too. Make sure that you do not use anything with rough or sharp edges because Zebra Plecos have sensitive skin and barbels are quite sensitive.

If you want to add plants, make sure you pick low light aquarium plants. Java Ferns, Anubias, and Hygros of all kinds are the best picks for a Zebra Pleco habitat.

Tank Parameter Requirement
Minimum Tank Size 20 Gallons
Tank Type Freshwater Planted
Temperature 80-88°F
pH 6.0-7.5
Hardness 5-10 dGH
Flow Heavy
Substrate Sand or fine gravel

What Size Aquarium Do They Need?

You can keep a single Zebra Pleco in a 20 gallon tank.

Add 10 extra gallons for each additional Zebra Pleco in the tank.

Zebra Pleco Tank Mates

It is difficult to keep Zebra Plecos in community tanks.

If you are looking for good tank mates then read Top 22 Best Community Fish.

This is not because of their temperament, but because it is difficult to find other species that can live with their tank conditions. Any fish that you add to a Zebra Plecostomus’s habitat will need to be able to withstand the high temperatures and increased amount of oxygen.

Here are some of the best Zebra Pleco tank mates:

Avoid bottom dwellers as they will compete with them for space at the bottom. This means you should skip the Kuhli Loach and most other Catfish.

You should also avoid fish that cannot tolerate water temperatures over 80°F. This means no Mountain Minnows, Zebra Danios, Dojo Loaches, or cool water Livebearers. The Roseline Shark or Denison Barb are often suggested as good tank mates but they should be avoided because their maximum water temperature is around 77°F.

Finally, do not include aggressive Cichlids such as Oscars, Jack Dempseys, and Green Terrors. Large Plecos such as the Common and Sailfin Pleco should also be left out.

Keeping Them Together

The best tank mates for a Zebra Pleco are other Zebra Plecos!

You just need to make sure you have more females than males.

Males will pick fights with each other as they compete for territory. You can keep the peace by keeping 3 females for every male. There should also be enough shelters to accommodate each member of the group. Every Pleco in your tank needs their own cave to call home.

Care Guide

The Zebra Pleco is not only expensive but they are difficult to care for too.

These fish can live for up to 10 years so they are a big commitment.

They cannot tolerate fluctuations in tank conditions at all. A quick shift in parameters can cause distress, illness, and even death. They also need a constant cycle of highly oxygenated water, as well as a clean tank and weekly water changes. The water should be changed at about 25% every week.

Zebra Plecos’ skin is sensitive so they are susceptible to fungal infections too.

The signs of a fungal infection include discoloration, rashes, lesions, and fuzzy growths on the fish’s scales. Sudden weight loss, lethargy, and loss of appetite are always a sign that something is wrong. You can use antifungal medication to take care of it, just make sure not to use copper based medication.

Diet

This catfish is an omnivore and they prefer meaty prey to leafy greens. In the wild Zebra Pleco will eat small worms, insect larvae, sponges, and crustaceans. Although they will eat algae and plant material on occasion, they are not an algae eater as algae does not make up much of their diet.

In the aquarium the majority of their diet should be protein.

You will need to purchase pellets that are made for Zebra Plecos.

These bottom feeder pellets can be supplemented with freeze dried worms and insect larvae. Live prey can be given alongside pellets and dried foods. Bloodworms, microworms, brine shrimp, and insect larvae are among the best live foods.

They do need to eat greens occasionally so make sure that you include a bit of spirulina or algae wafers in their diet.

You can feed them:

  • Bottom feeder pellets
  • Dried worms
  • Insect larvae
  • Bloodworms
  • Microworms
  • Brine shrimp
  • Algae wafers
  • Spirulina
  • Algae
  • Cucumbers
  • Zucchini
  • Peas
  • Shrimp meat
  • Clam meat

If you are keeping a single Zebra Pleco then feeding them will not be too difficult. Give them one meal in the morning just before sunrise, and another at night after sunset.

However, if you have a group or a community tank, feeding can be a bit of a challenge because this fish is so shy. In a community tank you should feed your Pleco at a separate time from the other fish in the tank. Make sure to place their food close to their cave too.

Behavior

Zebra Plecos are very shy and docile.

They spend most of their time hiding in caves to keep out of the way of the other fish in the tank.

You will notice they never leave the bottom of the tank and will not interact much with the other fish. The only exception to this is that they can be territorial with their own kind. Males will often compete for resources, territory, and dominance over females.

The more space you have for each Pleco in the tank, the less likely territorial aggression will be. Make sure that there is one cave available for each member of the group.

Because Zebra Pleco are so docile, food theft is common.

Each member of the group should be fed separately to reduce competition for food.

Breeding

Due to their scarcity in the wild, this fish is very popular with breeders.

They are easier to breed than other Plecos too.

In the wild their breeding season runs from July through September which is the wettest part of the year in the Xingu River.

To breed Zebra Plecos in your home aquarium you will need to isolate a male and female pair in a 30 gallon breeding tank. Next, perform a 30% water change to simulate a flood. After you change the water you should raise the temperature above 82°F. The breeding tank should have rocks around the bottom to create spawning caves.

When the female Zebra Pleco is in breeding condition her abdomen will swell up with eggs, and the male will chase her over to one of the caves to copulate. The female can lay up to 20 eggs at a time. Once the eggs are laid the male will push her out of the nest and defend it on his own.

It will take around a week for the eggs to hatch and the male will continue to defend the fry until they lose their yolk sacs (around 3 days after hatching). You can remove him from the tank now.

Free swimming fry should be given larval brine shrimp and powdered bottom feeder pellets to eat. You will need to provide multiple meals throughout the day. These fish grow very slowly, so you will not see any significant growth for about 2 to 4 months.

Zebra Plecos can be added to a community tank once they reach 2 inches.

History and First Sighting

The Zebra Pleco was first discovered in the 1980s.

At this point they had not been given a name yet, so they were referred to as L046.

In 1991, ichthyologists Isaac Isbrucker and Han Njissen gave the fish their official name: Hypancistrus zebra or the Zebra Pleco.

Throughout the 90s this species was frequently harvested from their native habitat. However, their populations began to decline in the early 2000s due to dam construction and urbanization. By 2004, the species was considered endangered and it is now illegal to harvest, sell, or trade wild specimens.

Captive breeding programs were introduced in the early 2000s and have helped to prevent Zebra Plecos from going extinct in the wild.

Species Summary Table

Zebra Pleco
Other Common Names: Emperor Peckoltia, Imperial Pleco
Scientific Name: Hypancistrus zebra
Family Name: Loricariidae
Distribution: Xingu River, Brazil
Size: 3-4 inches
Color: Black and white
Care Level: Advanced
Temperament: Peaceful
Lifespan: 10-15 years
Minimum Tank Size: 20 gallons
Tank Mate Compatibility: Middle or surface dwelling fish

Summary

The Zebra Pleco is hard to find, but they are a worthy investment if you can afford the high price tag.

This fish needs a very high water temperature and highly oxygenated water. This makes it quite difficult to keep them in a community setup.

Although keeping a Zebra Pleco is a challenge, it is never dull!

If you can meet all of their needs, this pretty fish will be with you for over a decade. They may not be the most popular fish in the hobby, but they have earned a loyal following among Pleco fans.

What do you like most about the Zebra Pleco? Let us know in the comments section below…

David Thomas Author Bio Picture
David Thomas leads the team at Everything Fishkeeping as the Editor-in-Chief. David has been keeping fish since he was a child. In his first tank he kept goldfish and since then he has kept over 30 different species. Now he has 4 separate tanks and his favorite is a 100 gallon freshwater tank with a school of Rasboras, Tetras and Loaches.