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Zebra Plecos:
So Many Questions About These Little Fish

By Ginny Eckstein (Aquarium Fish Magazine, Volume 7, Number 12, September 1995)

Q. I'm interested in setting up a 55-gallon tank that will have a lot of driftwood and live plants. I was planning on the main show being discus, but hat can change. I would really like to get one of those zebra-striped plecos, but I can't find anything about them other than their picture on fish food containers. I have heard from dealers that these fish are secretive during the day, but fins fly at night!
What are their preferred water parameters? The wood and plants would provide plenty of daytime cover. Should I keep any other bottom feeders, such as clown loaches, or will the zebra be too territorial? What fish are compatible with this beautiful suckermouth?
K. Nicole Harter, Indiana


Water Treatment

Fish Fur Feather sm2

Q. My search for the "holy grail" of catfish has ended in success! Yesterday I purchased a zebra pleco. My first encounter with this fish was in 1990 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. There was a single specimen priced at $298 - out of my budget range, so I was thrilled when I found two more at a store in Santa Cruz, California, priced at a reasonable $54. I would have bought them both, but one was already sold. This fish is, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful of all plecos! What can you tell me about it?
Dave Draper, California

Q. A store in my neighborhood has a zebra pleco for $60. Is this a hardy pleco? I would like to add one to my 135-gallon tank.
Jan Downing, Michigan

Q. I began my search for this fish after seeing it pictured in the September 1991 "Catfish In Depth" column. When I found one, it was quite expensive, but it was so beautiful I couldn't resist it.
Randall Bost, South Carolina

Q. After eight years without a tank, I set up a 29-gallon community tank for my daughter this Christmas. Like an alcoholic who takes a drink after many years, I am now completely addicted once again. This time, I have a new love - catfish… I'd like to buy six zebra plecos and try to get them to spawn… Did I mention that I never actually kept catfish before? Why are these fish so hard to keep? There may still be time to stop me.
Steve Christian, Ohio

Q. I read your article "Midnight At The Oasis" in the January 1994 issue. It piqued my curiosity. Like your friend, I too am a cichlid person. However, a few months ago I saw the most beautiful catfish ever! The zebra pleco must be fairly rare…price, $60 and up…I've never bred a catfish before, but I would love to breed these.
Dan O'Neill, Michigan

These are just a small sampling of the more than 80 letters I have received concerning Hypancistrus zebra, or, as Dave referred to them, the "holy grail" of catfish. While I'm not sure I'd go quite that far, I'll certainly agree to that description as far as loricariids are concerned. No, I'm lying, it's only number two. To me, the holy grail of loricariids is Pseudorinelepis pellegrini, but that's another story.

Wherever I travel, as part of the Tetra Speaker's Program, regardless of the topic, the zebra pleco is always a hotbed of interest. (Last year I even received a Christmas card from "Shifty," a California-based zebra pleco.) Why? Well, you don't have to be a catfish person to fall in love with them, and many hobbyists have lost (a euphemism for killed) them more than once.

Gee, I hope I didn't promise Nanette Kern that I wouldn't mention that the Milwaukee Aquarium Society could well hold the Hypancistrus zebra record for the most money spent / most fish lost…Perhaps I shouldn't say that while in Milwaukee I was asked what to do about a salamander (or some such thing) that that ate zebra plecos.

Zebra pleco. Photo by

So, let's consider the magic (they're small, their appearance is certainly unique and striking) and the myths (they all die in captivity and you can't keep them with anything else - incompatibility) of the zebra pleco. In the beginning…I suspect that many of us, myself included, fell in love with this fish after seeing a photo of it in a magazine - they called it a "zebra peckoltia." Speaking for myself, all I could think of was, what is it and where can I buy it?

Just imagine a white suckermouth catfish with black barber pole stripes - it didn't look real. Just like you, I wanted it and I didn't care, or ignored the fact, that I didn't know anything about it. What difference could it make? I knew I was certainly more than a competent fishkeeper.

August of 1989 was the first import of this amazing loricariid into this country. I was so excited-I could hardly wait! During the two plus hours I was driving to New Jersey all I could think of (they had told me the quantity was limited) was that I hope they're not all sold.

I gazed into the tank. Yes, that's the fish, I thought. They looked so frail and tiny (a little less than 2 inches total length). I then asked the question I should have asked before I drove to the next state (it never fails to amaze me how a normally sane and lucid person - me - could be totally devoid of common sense upon the import of a new catfish). "How much are they? What do they cost?" I guess I was hoping to buy them by the pound!

Suddenly I felt like I had been punched in the solar plexus - I couldn't catch my breath - I felt dizzy. Could the price really be $200 wholesale? Playing mind games, I tried to reason with the cost. I guess if I only wanted one that could be considered reasonable. (I'm not sure to whom.)

Reality said to me, "you need more than one to breed them." Spawn them? I wasn't even sure if I could keep them alive - they had just come in, they were thin (hollow bellied) and their respiration was rapid (also know as gasping).

I studied the tiny unknown (and at that time, undescribed) catfish. I was hoping to find an obvious visual sexual dimorphism - no such luck. I was afraid to pick one up. I thought I might be able to justify their cost to my husband if I could explain to him that I had purchased "pairs."

Yes, I thought about divorce. No, I wouldn't divorce him, I just didn't want to give him grounds - insanity - for divorcing me.

Painfully, I decided that if I couldn't have them all, I wouldn't purchase any. Driving home I thought, briefly, about doing away with my husband. Not a very realistic attitude on my part.

If only I could find a way to justify the expenditure of thousands of dollars for fish that I knew nothing about and that appeared closer to living in the great aquarium in the sky than ever surviving in my tanks. I couldn't, I didn't.

The only reason I'm explaining the saga of my experiences to you is to make you feel better. I would have had no qualms about stretching the truth if I was spending $50 retail. It's just so much more difficult to (and maintain an innocent face) when the price is $200 wholesale and you want the whole tank!

Finally, let's talk about zebra plecos. Hypancistrus zebra was described and named in 1991 by Isbrucker and Nijssen - now we have a real name (scientific). They were described from material collected in the Rio Xingu, Brazil.

That should make captive maintenance easier, if we think about South America - Amazonian waters are usually referred to as: clearwater, blackwater, or whitewater, based upon the way they look (physical appearance). Many of the beautiful, exciting (albeit pricey) loricariids that are currently making aquarists go crazy are indigenous to the Tocantins and Xingu (sounds like shingoo), which are clear water basins. Even in the dry season, when water temperatures might easily be above 84 degrees Fahrenheit, the fast-moving waters have high levels of dissolved oxygen (Jeff Cardwell, personal communication).

Map of the Xingu River in Brazil. Illustration by Clay Trachtman.

As an aquarist the importance of this information should and would indicate (make you think about) diet and aeration in captivity - keeping them alive! Consider their natural habitat. Clearwater is usually defined as having low sediment load and being relatively low in nutrients, which prevents an abundance of aquatic herbaceous plants from prospering. It really isn't necessary to try and duplicate this type of aquatic environment in your tank, but it is important to find ways to meet the needs of the fish.

For example, the one thing that we definitely know (regardless of season) is that the fish's natural habitat has high levels of dissolved oxygen, the result of fast moving water. And, as aquarists we're aware of the thermal relationship of water temperature to dissolved oxygen content. That is, the higher the water temperature, the lower the capacity for holding dissolved oxygen. To increase the level of dissolved oxygen, you simply need to increase the aeration and/or use a wet/dry (trickle) filter.

Well, if clearwater doesn't have an abundance of plants - including algae, which is an aquatic plant - what might tell you about the diet of your zebra pleco? Quite simply, they're more omnivorous than other loricariids we're used to keeping. Although for two years I've successfully kept my zebras on an exclusive diet of Hikari Algae wafers (they don't eat them immediately, they wait for them to start to dissolve), since adding frozen bloodworms and krill to their diets the females are filling out. Many aquarists have told me that their zebra plecos live entirely on a diet of blackworms or Tubifex. I'd suggest a combined diet of all these foods to ensure balanced, more complete nutrition.

Although I keep driftwood in their tanks as I do with all loricariids, I've never observed them grazing on it. Instead, they seem to use it as a shelter or territorial marker.

A primary cause of aggression in captivity is lack of adequate living space. In other words, too often we try to keep zebra plecos in tanks that are too small. Their diminutive size tricks you into thinking: small fish, small tank. This is not a problem if you're keeping one, but two or three can be a nightmare in a small tank - one that doesn't last long. You quickly end up with only one zebra left alive.

Now that you're keeping them alive, you want them to spawn. You're probably already thinking how you'll breed them and retire on the profits obtained from their commercial propagation. Well, don't quit your day job yet.

Hypancistrus zebra has been bred. There are even unsubstantiated reports (meaning no one has seen any fry) of them breeding in the U.S. Articles have appeared in DATZ, the famed German aquarium magazine, that included pictures of "fry." I have had two breeding articles in my possession for some time, but, unfortunately, they are written in German (no surprises here), so all I could do was drool over the photos and lament the fact that I couldn't read the text.

Well, miracle of miracles, one of my readers (who just happened to be interested in zebra plecos) can read German! My profound thanks to Ron Bellivieu and his friend Karl Weining (North Carolina) for their combined effort in translating and interpreting the articles for me.

Now, finally, I could read the articles. My initial reaction was the realization that while aquarists in this country are having difficulty keeping zebra plecos alive, they're actually breeding them in Europe. Read the following and perhaps you'll realize why I don't consider a natural biotope tank a necessity.

Although both German spawnings appeared to be accidental or unplanned by the aquarist (not on the fishes' part - they knew what they were doing), they happened in two incredibly different tanks. The first article describes a South American biotope tank: consistent pH of 6.5 and daily 10-percent water changes with reverse osmosis water. Well, that certainly made sense to me - and then, I read (and reread) the other breeding article…pH 8.0 and high values listed for total and carbonate hardness. Yikes, this is an African cichlid tank! Hypancistrus zebra was obviously thriving - and breeding - under the least desirable conditions you or I might expect.

Well, what was the common denominator? There had to be at least one in these very different aquariums. The South American tank had "forceful current… accomplished / supplied by two powerful, submerged powerheads…" The African cichlid tank spawning article mentioned "water jets."

I've had 20 zebra plecos living in my fish room for more than three years and I never lost any. I attributed my success to tank size - the are the only residents of a 125-gallon tank with lots of aeration. And yet, I've never had them spawn in what should be ideal circumstances.

So, here are some points for us to consider. First is sex. More properly, I mean dimorphism - separating the boys from the girls. As described in one of the German articles "…secondary sexual dimorphism. Nuptial males with more conspicuous odontodes in interopercular area than present in females."

Second is algae. I've never seen these fish eat or graze on algae, and both German articles comment on the same observation. Hypancistrus zebra appears to ignore green algae (that would usually be devoured with gusto by loricariids). Because they're indigenous to the Xingu - clearwater- I don't know why I find that surprising.In conclusion, in my opinion, the key to successfully keeping and possibly spawning Hypancistrus zebra is to purchase a group of four to six individuals. Although they're highly territorial, if you provide them with enough space - the largest tank you can afford and have room for - you'll discover they prefer staying together as a group.

In my tank they are separated into three distinct groups or schools. Because each individual is slightly different in appearance, it was possible to determine - after much observation and eye strain - that these groups appear to remain consistent (unchanging).

I'll assume that after purchasing these beauties at considerable expense, I won't have to remind you of the importance of regular partial water changes. They certainly will not thrive in the presence of nitrites and nitrates in your aquarium and, indeed, will react adversely to such conditions.

Provide optimum aeration and a varied diet. They seem to love, and thrive on, worms, krill and frozen Daphnia. Include these items in their diets.

Actually, now that I'm thinking about it, they're not that difficult to keep in captivity. All they want is proper maintenance, space and diet. And, isn't that what all our aquarium fish really deserve?