I know that I am not the only one who is fascinated by the zebra pleco – extremely beautiful, expensive, and soon to be extinct in the wild!Xing Peter Petersen 01

River Xingú
Unfortunately, the Xingú River is being dammed up, and it is feared that many species of fish endemic to this river will become extinct, including many Hypancistrus species; also the zebra pleco.

The eminent Brazilian professor, Leandro Sousa, has told that local fishermen have tried to move zebra plecos to other rivers with similar water characteristics, but have so far been unsuccessful in making them breed in their new habitats. But with the help from skilled zebra pleco breeders, such as my friend, Frederik Christiansen from Denmark, hopefully this plan will succeed in the future.

Zebra plecos in the wild
The scientific name of the zebra pleco is Hypancistrus zebra. It also has L-numbers associated with its name, L046 and L098. The L stands for Loricariidae, which is the family name of plecos. The L numbers are used to identify and separate plecos before they have been scientifically described – these numbers indicate different collection locations and/or variations such as physical appearance, stripes, colours...

In this case L046 is the common form, and L098 is an uncommon form with wavy/broken lines.

Xing Peter Petersen 03The zebra plecos grow to 7-10 cm in length. They normally reach breeding size at about 5-6 cm, and are known to breed even until the age of 20 years. Sexing is best done by observing from above; the females have a more predominantly short and plump shape than the males; but, also, the males have broader and more powerful stripes.

The zebra plecos are found in shallow water, of 1 to 3 metres. They tend to stay and live off a particular rock, covered in sponge life. They live off this sponge, grazing it for small crustaceans and worms. The rock crevices serve to protect them from predators, such as pike cichlids (Crenicichla spp).

They live in fast moving water, highly oxygenated, where the water is soft and has pH of about 6-7, and a temperature of 28-32 degrees Celsius.

It is a reasonable theory that the zebra plecos breed in the crevices of rocks, even though nobody have really seen this, which has led to speculation that maybe they breed more often in holes from bird nests in the flooded banks of the river. It would certainly explain the lack of evidence of breeding between the rocks. Again, these are just theories, so far, but maybe this information can help to better understand this fish.

Zebra plecos home keeping and breedingJJ 45 ltr Zebra Pleco 03
Before I get in to listing what parameters are helpful for zebra plecos to thrive and breed, many have successfully kept and bred zebra plecos in normal tap water, and with no extra attention...

However, there is no doubt that the zebra plecos prefer places with some darkness to hide and breed, a fairly high temperature, a generous water flow, and frequent water changes.

As for softness of the water, the zebra plecos have no problem with hard water from the tap. But if you want to breed them, it is best to use soft water, as the eggs become harder from the chalk in hard water, which makes exiting the eggs more arduous, if not impossible. Also, the fish that do come out become snubnosed from the exertion. This may, to some, just be a cosmetic thing but I think it is well worth keeping in mind.

There are several ways you can optimize the chances that they will breed. Obviously you need male and female fish; and while it sounds like a joke, that I even mention it, the problem is very much a reality as in the trade, certainly in Europe, by far the most fish sold are males. Also, it can be a problem for the untrained eye to separate male and female specimens. Besides male and female, breeding is more likely to happen when you have several males, with a dominant male and a few sub-dominants.

JJ 45 ltr Zebra Pleco 01
Apart from this, dropping the temperature, shortly (no lower than 25 degrees Celsius), more frequent water changes, and even specific food can trigger breeding. Tetra Discus granulate is known to do just that with several species of Hypancistrus.

It is the male who takes care of the parental guarding of the eggs and young juveniles. If the juveniles have no hiding places outside the breeding caves, it is advisable to remove them to a separate tank or “juvenile floating box”; otherwise they will risk being eaten by the other plecos. The juveniles are not even safe from their own mother – it happens that the female lies on top of a breeding cave and snatch unwary juveniles exiting from the safety of the cave.


My Zebra pleco project
My fascination with the zebra plecos has led me to think about aquascaping for these fish. I wanted to create both a semi-natural space for fish, as well as something nice to look at, and last but not least, a great looking environment to photograph.JJ 45 ltr Zebra Pleco 04

I took inspiration from images shown to me by my friend and co-worker at Blue Planet Aquarium, Peter Petersen; pictures and videos from River Xingú showing exactly what the river bottom topography looks like, where the zebras live. However, as interesting it was to see underwater footage from the Xingú, I have to say, that aquascaping my tank to look exactly like that, would be fairly difficult to make authentic and, ultimately, fairly boring.

So I kept in mind, the knowledge that the zebra plecos prefer dark crevices, fast moving water, much oxygen, and high temperature, and went along to build up the aquascape using those guidelines.
Firstly, I packed the rocks together, sloping along the direction of the water flow, to create as much current into the spaces between the rocks. I placed the rocks on top of 6 pleco caves, and then again on top of a couple of layers of slate rock.
I used sand of varying sizes for the foreground and bottom material. The slate layers help the zebras easily “sweep” the sand away from the caves, which is apparently what they prefer.

Hypancistrus zebra 06I have placed the tank just under a window. I like very much the natural light in the tank, but as the plecos prefer some dark areas, I have covered the back of the tank op to about 1 inch from top; thereby leaving most of the rocks in relative darkness.

As you can see in the photos, I have then put the plants on top of the rocks, and they seem to thrive. I know there isn’t much plant life in the Xingú where the plecos live, and if there were, it certainly wouldn’t be Java ferns – but the plants are there for my own pleasure.

For water quality, I make sure to change half the water at least once a week; half and half of osmosis water and tap water. I keep the temperature between 28 and 30 degrees Celsius.

I feed them daily with Tetra Discus granulate, and once a week some frozen foods.

I have the tank right next to my home office work space, and initially I thought maybe the plecos wouldn’t show themselves much because of my presence, but those worries are firmly put to rest. Of course, they tend to stay near their covered caves, but they are active and visible almost all the time, even though I move about right in front of them.

Tank: All-glass aquarium, 45 litres
Rocks: Mini-landscape & slate
Plants: Microsorum pteropus “Narrow” (Java fern)
Filter: Eheim Liberty 200, 760 lph, for 200 litre tank
Heater: Cobalt Aquatics Easy-Therm Submersible Aquarium Heater
Other life forms in the tank:  Poecilia wingei “Red Chest” (Endler’s guppy) & Neocaridina davidi “Sakura Red” (Cherry shrimp)

JJ 45 ltr Zebra Pleco 03

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