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The Sorrows of Stripes and Smudge:
Confessions of a Zebra Owner

By Marina Carletti (Tropical Fish Hobbyist, Volume 42 Number 1, September 1993)


Two zebra plecos, Hypancistrus zebra.
They will probably not share the log for long, as the species is very territorial. Photo by E. C. Taylor.

My story began one rainy afternoon as I was searching through the tanks of a local fish dealer, hoping to discover an exciting addition to my 50-gallon gourami and angelfish community tank. Suddenly, a little suckermouth catfish caught my eye, and I knew I had to have him at all costs. Quite unlike any other pleco cat I had seen, it was about 1½ inches long, with a bold pattern of black and white stripes running from its head through the tip of its forked tail, just like a tiny zebra.

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Fish Fur Feather sm2

I ran to find a salesperson, who informed me that it was indeed a zebra pleco, and that it would thrive with any habitat I could provide. A truly adaptive fish! Unfortunately, there was just a small catch-its rather heavy price. Up to that moment, I would have considered positively insane anyone willing to pay what virtually amounted to a small fortune for a creature less than 2 inches long, but so badly was I infected with "fish fever" that without any further delay I bought the little pleco.

Like dark clouds obscuring a bright summer day, sobering thoughts began to gather in my mind as I drove home with my little treasure in its bag. First, I knew nothing about the fish or its habitat. It would probably be very delicate as it was quite rare, and it certainly would have been a lot wiser to have done some research before buying the fish. Also, I already had three plecos in my tank even though they were not very big.

By the time I had reached home, I heartily regretted my hasty decision. With a gloomy foreboding of impeding disaster, I installed my new acquisition in the breeder trap where I usually put my new plecos to fatten up a little after their meager fare in the store. I gave him brine shrimp and a slice of parboiled zucchini and left him for the night. When I went to switch on the lights the next morning, my heart was thumping in my throat. To my delight, not only was the pleco alive, but he had eaten all the food, and he continued to feast heartily for the next several days.

In the meantime, research of the available literature yielded only scanty information. The zebra pleco (Hypancistrus zebra) is a fish relatively new to science, and was first imported into the U.S. in 1989. It has been collected from the Rio Xingu in Brazil and is stated to be hardy given good water quality and plenty of vegetable material. Well, it was certainly not a lot of help to go by!

Finally the great day arrived for the pleco to be released into the tank. I opened the trap and the fish dashed under a piece of driftwood, where it remained all day. After the lights were out, I placed some food in front of his hiding spot, hoping to see him scampering out, but he did not budge. I sat by the tank in the darkness with a red light in the hope of observing some action on his part, but he remained stationary all night long while my other bottom-feeders went happily about their business.

He might as well have been glued to the spot, for he never moved for the next few days and nights, until, tired of dozing all night long by the tank side with my red light, I decided to put him back in the trap. Never was there a happier pleco!

Back in the trap, he instantly regained his vitality and appetite. Puzzled, I left him there for a few more days, and then returned him to the tank, with the same results as before. After several tries, it became quite clear that he simply refused to live together with my other fishes, and if I was going to insist on putting him there, he was quite prepared to starve to death.

About a month after his purchase, I decided to return to the dealer for advice. Also, close inspection of the tank where he had been kept would perhaps give me some insight as to the setup he preferred. But as luck would have it, as I stood examining the tank, another striped creature emerged from behind a rock, as thin and sorry-looking a pleco as I had ever seen. I pointed him out to the dealer, who had not noticed his presence and suggested that I could have him at a large discount. Here was my chance to own not just one but two rare fish, and perhaps become the first person to breed them!

Blinded by my excitement, I bought the second one as well. My enthusiasm cooled off somewhat when I examined him at home. He was even skinnier than he had looked in the store, with a hollow belly and poor color, and I feared that he was too far gone to save. He was slightly bigger than my first pleco, and one of his black stripes was smudged. I thus christened them "Stripes" and "Smudge."

Despite my fears, Smudge ate well, put on weight rapidly, and soon regained his bright colors. Then, just as I thought he was out of danger, the blow fell. My little albino pleco had found its way one night into the trap, doubtless lured by the plentiful supply of food. In the name of scientific curiosity, I decided not to make the trap "intruder-proof" for the next night, just to see if the albino would repeat the performance. Sure enough, there he was the next morning, and at the bottom of the trap, stiff and twisted in a semicircle, lay the lifeless body of Smudge. Now I knew the true meaning of "throwing money down the drain."

Wishing I had never set eyes on a zebra pleco, I tried to remove Smudge's body from the trap, body the tiny spines on his body clung to the fine mesh of the material. I took the trap out of the water, but still I could not free the stiff body. At a loss, I then went to the bathroom, pushed and pulled some more, and just as I was about to tip the trap over the toilet and give it a really good shake, a rush of bubbles escaped out of Smudge's gills, and he started to move. Trembling with emotion, I rushed him back to the tank, overjoyed to have rescued him from the jaws of death. The cause of his "death" has remained for me somewhat of a mystery; perhaps he had stopped breathing when he had become caught in the mesh material as he tried to escape from the intruding albino.

Stripes and Smudge have now lived happily for many months in a 10-gallon tank. Since they are so shy, I felt that some top-swimmers might give them some security, and added a pair of platties and a betta to the tank. I keep the water of a medium hardness with a pH just above neutral and a temperature around 75oF. I feed them frozen brine shrimp, zucchini slices, and a variety of other sinking and flake foods. The only thing they stubbornly refuse to eat is algae!


The authors "Stripes." Photo by the author.

While all the other plecos I have owned have been rather outgoing in nature, Stripes and Smudge are very reserved and sedentary. Stripes has made his home in a little rock cave at one end of the tank, and Smudge lives under a piece of driftwood at the other end. Since the food is always gone in the morning and they both appear to be happy and well fed, I no longer spy on them at night, so I cannot relate any details of their nocturnal behavior. I can only state that they are not very active during the day. In fact, I don't think that I have ever seen Smudge move from his little spot unless I put some tidbit right under his nose. Stripes, in comparison, has a very hectic schedule. He pokes his nose out now and then, shifts position a lot, and occasionally sits on his "doorstep." His real outburst of energy occurs in the evening when he patrols the territory (about 2 square inches) in front of his cave. In the early days, if I spotted Stripes outside the cave, I literally had to crawl along the floor to catch a glimpse of him before he saw me and rushed back in. Now both fish are visible most of the time, and despite their sedentary lifestyle, they still make a striking display.

I have not yet been able to determine their sex, but Smudge was, from the start, the most dominant fish. One curious piece of behavior is that whenever I put my hand into the tank, Stripes leaves his cave and rushes over to Smudge, something I have never observed with other plecos.

Stripes and Smudge have both grown a half-inch since their arrival, and I am curious to see what size they will attain. Zebra plecos are considered to be a dwarf species, but I have not found any information as to what their maximum size should be. I have also not lost hope that might have a male and a female and that they might someday spawn. However, only time will tell.

I can add, in the meantime, that after my initial doubts and fears, I have not regretted my hasty decision to add them to my collection. There is, after all, a certain satisfaction at being allowed to glimpse into the life of a shy and secretive creature, and in knowing that you have succeeded in making it feel at home away from its natural environment.