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Zebra Pleco: Everything You Need To Know

Zebra Pleco: Everything You Need To Know

Zebra Pleco (Hypancistrus zebra) are rare but are one of the most satisfying fish to keep. They are a nocturnal, shy, and peaceful fish species with stunning colors and patterns. Unfortunately, their specific care makes Zebra Pleco unsuitable for beginner aquarists and some community tanks.  

The Zebra Pleco Complete Guide covers the fish species’ need for high oxygen levels, specific room temperatures, and fast-flowing currents. They also need hiding places. They can stay in a 20-gallon (76-liter) tank, but a 30-gallon (114-liter) tank is ideal.

In this article, I’ll discuss the Zebra Pleco fish species in detail. I’ll cover their ideal water conditions and feeding patterns. I will also explain why they die easily, despite their 10 to 15-year lifespan. 

Zebra Pleco Overview & Origin

  • Common name: Zebra Pleco, L046, L098, L173, and Imperial Pleco
  • Scientific name: Hypancistrus zebra
  • Care level: Moderate
  • Size: 3 to 4 Inches (7.6 to 10.2cm) at maturity
  • Life Span:10 to 15 years
  • Temperament: Shy and peaceful
  • Diet: Primarily carnivore but also feeds on some vegetation
  • Minimum tank size: 20 gallons (76 liters)
  • Tank level: Bottom dweller
  • Water temperature: 79 to 88°F (26 to 31°C)
  • Water pH: 6.0 to 7.5
  • Water hardness: 2 to 6dGH

Zebra Plecos are quite rare, which is why they come with a high price tag. If you can get a breeder, you may save money if you get very young Zebra Plecos. 

Of course, getting young ones means you will be more involved in their care until they reach maturity, but you’ll get more fish at a bargain. Fortunately, Zebra Plecos live longer than most aquarium fish species, provided you take great care of them. 

Appearance & Size 

The Zebra Pleco is aptly named after its black and white stripes covering its entire body and 6 fins. When viewed under the right lighting conditions, these markings become even more stunning and vibrant.

They are designed for swimming along the riverbed and have long bodies with smooth, flat underbellies. Their suckermouth that is positioned underneath is surrounded by four whiskers.

Their eyes are large, high set, and blend in with their black and white stripes.

Adult Plecos measure no longer than 4 inches (10.2cm) but are considered mature when they reach 2.5 inches (6.4cm).

Difference Between Male and Female

Distinguishing between the male and female Zebra Pleco requires a keen eye, as there are subtle variations between the two genders.

Males have slender bodies and broad heads, while females have thicker bodies with a curved shape from the head to the dorsal fin. Females have slightly smaller, less pointed heads.

Personality & Behavior

Zebra Plecos are very shy, peaceful, and solitary. They can be pretty shy when they’re placed in their new home, and will often hide in caves to get away from the other fish and be on their own.

Nocturnal by nature, they are more active at night time. That’s when they come out of hiding to check out their tank and go hunting for food.

They have been known to be territorial with other fish of the same species, especially the males. They tend to pick fights with other males to compete for territory.  To keep the peace, have 3 females for every male.

Expected Lifespan

Zebra Plecos have an average lifespan of 10 to 15 years if they’re kept in a well-maintained aquarium, so you’ll want to be prepared for a long-term commitment.

If they are kept in substandard living conditions or have a poor diet, their life expectancy will be shortened. 

Zebra Pleco Care & Tank Set Up

Zebra Plecos require moderate care, but it also demands more commitment. They are usually not recommended for beginners because they’re not very forgiving. If you get aspects of its care wrong, it will be difficult to reverse the damage.

Nitrogen Cycle

Before I go into the detailed care of the Zebra Pleco, I’d like to highlight that you should only put this fish in an aquarium that is at least six months mature.

You can set up the aquarium with other fish species and plants in preparation for the Zebra Pleco. However, the primary reason you have other fish in this tank is to help build bacteria concentration.

When the aquarium doesn’t have the right bacteria buildup to prevent ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate spikes, Zebra Plecos will be exposed to toxins that instantly kill them.  

However, you can also use fish that can coexist with the Zebra Pleco. 

While it is true that some fish species make great tank mates, Zebra Plecos have unique needs that are incompatible with other fish species. 

Once you move your Zebra Pleco into the aquarium, change 1/4 of the water weekly to control toxin buildup from food and waste degradation.

Here is a video that gives a basic guide on Zebra Plecos and what you need to do to keep them healthy:

Tank Size

Zebra Plecos are on the smaller side so a 20-gallon (76-liter) tank at a minimum will work fine. 

I would recommend going a bit larger with a 30-gallon (114-liter) tank if you can, to give them more space to swim and explore. With a larger tank, you’ll be able to keep a small group of Zebra Plecos or house them with other compatible tank mates.  

If you are keeping a small group, the extra space will stop any territorial issues, allowing your fish to live in harmony.

Water Parameters

  • Water temperature: 79 to 88°F (26 to 31°C)
  • Water pH: 6.0 to 7.5
  • Water hardness: 2 to 6dGH
  • Water current: High flow

Water Temperature

Zebra Plecos are originally from the Amazon Tropics. They are used to room temperature water. You must ensure the aquarium is within the 79 to 88°F (26 to 31°C) temperature range. You should avoid getting to the lower (79°F or 26°C) and upper (88°F or 31°C) limits because there is always the risk the temperatures may cross to dangerous levels.

The Zebra Pleco’s metabolism will slow down when the water temperature falls too low. It will struggle to digest food, and your fish will stop eating over time. At this stage, not only will the Zebra Pleco become inactive, but it will also be vulnerable to diseases, such as fin rot and ich. 

Zebra Pleco will become too active if the water temperature is high. Unfortunately, high temperatures mean lower oxygen levels, so the Zebra Pleco will swim close to the surface to get more oxygen. 

An overactive Zebra Pleco may be entertaining, but this unnatural behavior increases stress levels.

To ensure you maintain optimal water temperature:

  • Use an aquarium water heater.
  • Do not use room temperature as an indicator of the aquarium’s temperature. Keep checking the water temperature to determine if you need to adjust it.
  • Do not place the aquarium in a spot with direct sunlight. This will heat the tank, promote algae growth, and lower oxygen levels.

The HiTauing Submersible Aquarium Water Heater (available on heats the aquarium rapidly. The two-temperature control system (Fahrenheit and Celcius) makes it easier to monitor the water temperature. 

The over-temperature protection and intelligent water sensor feature help to ensure the water doesn’t heat up beyond the required temperature.  

Water pH

Zebra Plecos are most comfortable in neutral pH but can tolerate slightly acidic water (6.5 to 7.0pH). If the pH rises too high, the protective mucus layer on the Zebra Pleco will start to come off. 

Without the protective layer, the following are some of the outcomes: 

  • Vulnerability to harmful bacteria
  • Breathing difficulties
  • Stunted growth
  • A change in the appearance of fins and tails
  • Poor uptake of calcium and other minerals

Highly acidic water will increase the production of mucus. This will lead to the following:

  • Appetite loss
  • Low oxygen levels in the tank lead to fish gasping.
  • Enlargement and thickening of gills
  • Eye damage

Water Current

Zebra Plecos thrive in an aquarium with a high current. You should use a strong filter that will produce the right current. Besides their need for high oxygen, Zebra Plecos produce a lot of waste, so you need a good filter that will guarantee optimal water conditions.

The Tararium 300GPH Submersible Pump (available on works in a 40 to 150-gallon (151 to 56- liter) tank. It has a double-deep filtration system that reduces odor and cleans the fish tank. It is durable, quiet, and works great in large tanks. 


Zebra Plecos thrive in aquariums with low lighting. However, the light shouldn’t be a big problem considering they are nocturnal. You can have the standard aquarium lighting, and your Zebra Pleco will be fine.

However, it is best to switch off the lights during feeding time to lure the Zebra Pleco out of hiding, especially if you schedule feedings during the day. It would help if you also switched the lights off at night.

What To Put in The Tank

Your aquarium will be home to your Zebra Plecos for years, so you need to make it as comfortable as possible. Zebra Plecos have special needs, and you can meet those by placing the right items in the aquarium. 

Here are some of the items to put in the aquarium:

  • Substrate: The ideal substrate is sand or gravel. However, when using gravel, ensure they are not large because the Zebra Pleco may swallow it accidentally or intentionally.
  • Chunks of driftwood: Besides providing excellent hiding spots, driftwood is rich in fiber, and Zebra Plecos love nibbling on them. 
  • Rocks: Get rocks of different sizes to provide additional hiding spots. 
  • Plants: You can be as creative as you wish with plants. However, ensure you don’t overcrowd the tank. 

Zebra Pleco Tank Mates

The best tank mates for the Zebra Pleco are other Zebra Plecos. However, fish with the same temperament and water parameters make great tank mates, too.

You should consider the following when looking for fish to put in the same tank as Zebra Pleco: 

  • They should be shy, timid fish. Zebra Plecos prefer solitude. When put together with social fish, Zebra Plecos are likely to be more withdrawn and hide more than usual. 
  • The fish should withstand strong currents. When the water flow is too fast, fish that require a slow current struggle to swim, and their fins will tear. They will also hide behind objects to escape the strong current. 
  • They should be middle and upper-tank-level swimmers. Zebra Plecos are bottom dwellers and can be quite territorial. As long as the tank mates stay out of their way, they can live peacefully in the same tank. However, a few bottom-dwellers live comfortably with the Zebra Pleco.

If you intend to have multiple Zebra Plecos in the aquarium, ensure you have more females. Too many males will lead to territorial fights. However, you can also get a large tank with multiple hiding spots. This way, each male Zebra Pleco can claim its territory. 

Tank Mates To Avoid

Steer clear of fish that are large, aggressive, or known to be competitive for food. 

  • Tank Mates To Avoid: Rainbowfish, Endlers, Large Cichlids, Threadfins, Discus and Hatchetfish

Zebra Pleco Food & Diet

Some sources mention that the Zebra Pleco are omnivores, while others refer to them as carnivores. It may seem contradictory, but Zebra Plecos eat vegetables and have a high-protein diet.

Some of the vegetables that they eat include:

  • Lettuce
  • Cucumber
  • Peapods
  • Broccoli
  • Zucchini
  • Crushed peas

Unlike other Plecos, the Zebra Pleco is not very fond of algae. You may see them nibbling on aquarium algae occasionally. Still, they won’t eat much.  

Some protein-rich foods that the Zebra Pleco eats include brine shrimp, fly larvae, and bloodworms. 

Remember that Zebra Plecos spend most of the time at the bottom of the tank. So, when buying dried protein-rich foods, it is best to get sinking pellets instead of flakes. 

If your Zebra Pleco is in a community tank, you should consider feeding them separately because they will not come out when the rest are feeding. If necessary, feed Zebra Pleco at night when it is most active. You can also switch off the lights to trick it into coming out for food.

Feeding Schedule

Feed your Zebra Pleco two or three times a day. Some people do it once a day. How often you feed Zebra Plecos will depend on their age and feeding habits. However, you should be extremely careful about putting too much food in the tank. 

Zebra Plecos are not very intelligent when it comes to eating. When you add substantial amounts of food into the tank, they will eat more than they need. This is especially common with adult Zebra Pleco. When Zebra Plecos overeat, they get bloated, leading to internal organ failure and death. 

If you have multiple Zebra Plecos in a tank, it is best to separate them according to age. Younger Zebra Plecos are not as prone to overeating as adults. 

Zebra Pleco Common Health Issues

Zebra Plecos often suffer from most, if not all, fish diseases. However, this is primarily due to poor water conditions. Some common diseases you are likely to encounter include fungal and bacterial infections.

Ich ‘White Spot Disease’

Also known as white spot disease, Ich is caused by a parasite called Ichthyophthirius multifiliis

Ich Symptoms

  • White spots on the head and the rest of the body
  • Irritability
  • Scratching on the tank and items in the tank

Ich Treatment

It can be treated with over-the-counter medications, but it is vital to maintain good water quality and hygiene to prevent re-infection.

Bacterial Infection

Like most freshwater fish, Zebra Plecos are susceptible to getting bacterial infections.

Bacterial Symptoms

  • Cloudy eyes
  • Bloody patches
  • Whitish film on the fish
  • Ulcers

Bacterial Treatment

Seek professional advice because antibiotics can make the situation worse.

Bacterial Prevention

The best way to prevent bacterial infection is by maintaining your tank properly.  Most diseases are direct cause by poor living conditions. Make sure you have a strong filter and change 20% of the water each week. 

When you see signs of sickness in a Zebra Pleco, the first step is to isolate it as you start treatment. This will help ensure the other fish in the tank remain healthy. However, you still need to monitor them because signs of infections don’t appear immediately.

Tips on How To Spot Stress in Zebra Pleco

The primary cause of death in Zebra Pleco is stress. You need to know how to identify signs of stress so that you can remedy the situation before it gets out of hand.

Several things will cause stress in Zebra Pleco:

  • Wrong water parameters
  • Extreme water fluctuations
  • Aggressive tank mates
  • Underfeeding
  • Overfeeding
  • Diseases

Fortunately, your Zebra Pleco will give signs when stressed, and it is up to you to find the cause. Some of the signs of stress in Zebra Pleco include:

  • Weight loss
  • Weight gain
  • Bloating
  • The Zebra Pleco starts turning white
  • Hiding more than usual

When you see these signs, check the water conditions. You should also look at signs of disease and the behavior of tank mates against the Zebra Pleco. 

Zebra Pleco FAQs

How Big Do Zebra Pleco Get?

Adult Plecos measure no longer than 4 inches (10.2cm) but are considered mature when they reach 2.5 inches (6.4cm).

Why Are Zebra Plecos So Expensive?

The Zebra Pleco is listed as critically endangered, which is why they come with a high price tag.

They are native to the Xingu River in Brazil where their survival is threatened by alterations to their habitat and overfishing in the ornamental fishing industry.

They are a highly sought-after, and one of the most common freshwater ornamental species trafficked from Brazil.

Are Zebra Plecos Difficult To Keep?

Zebra Plecos require moderate care, but they also demand more commitment. They are usually not recommended for beginners because they’re not very forgiving. If you get aspects of its care wrong, it will be difficult to reverse the damage.

You’ll need to be prepared for a long-term commitment, their average lifespan is 10 to 15 years if they’re kept in a well-maintained aquarium.

Wrapping Up

The Zebra Pleco may appear slightly demanding, but it is not. Once you make the aquarium environment-friendly, your Zebra Pleco will live comfortably for years without issues. You only need to ensure you follow the guide on how to take care of them and identify emerging problems early enough.

If you’re interested in Pleco fish and want to check out some others have a look at this article about Types of Plecos.

I’m Elle, the founder of FishHQ. I created this website to share knowledge, tips, and inspiration for beginner hobbyists to help them create a healthy, happy, and vibrant environment for their fish to thrive. Read more...