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All About Red Zebra Cichlids: Behavior, Care, and Tank Mates

All About Red Zebra Cichlids: Behavior, Care, and Tank Mates

Are you on the lookout for colorful fishies you can add to your tank? Then red zebra cichlid might be the right choice for you!

While gorgeous and fun, these adorable pets aren’t as popular as some other fish from the cichlid family. Many novice fish keepers don’t know much about them, which is what makes them all the more fun in my eyes.

Why do red zebra cichlids stand out? Are they suitable for beginners, or should they be reserved for more experienced fish keepers?

Here’s everything you need to know!

Breed Overview

red zebra cichlid breed overview table

Red zebra cichlid (Maylandia estherae) is a fish from a haplochromine cichlid tribe. It is known under many names, such as the red zebra mbuna or Esther Grant’s zebra

You might also find them wrongly labeled as African cichlids.

This is a bottom-dweller that originates from Lake Malawi in Africa. However, today red zebra cichlids are mostly captive-bred to preserve their bright colors. 

Due to their size, they aren’t as popular as dwarf cichlid species, such as the kribensis cichlid. Still, you’ll probably be able to find them in most well-supplied pet stores. 


red zebra cichlid appearance

Red zebra cichlids are torpedo-shaped fish, with a muscular build that is typical for other mbuna fish from Lake Malawi. 

Despite their name, these fish can be found in more colors and not just red. In fact, in nature, these fish aren’t red but rather beige to brown. Not just that, but they don’t have stripes!

While orange and red shades are the most common in fish bred for tanks, you can also find red zebra cichlids in blue, yellow, pink, and even mottled!

On their anal, dorsal, pectoral, and pelvic fins, you can spot tiny spikes. They are used to deter predators. Don’t panic, you are unlikely to get stabbed.

Also, they have both regular and pharyngeal teeth, something that isn’t as common. 


Red zebra cichlids are medium-sized cichlids. They aren’t the biggest aquarium fish you can find, but they are much larger than dwarf cichlids.

Generally, they can reach a length of 5 inches. However, many might remain smaller due to confined living space.

Male Vs Female Red Zebra Cichlid

It’s not very easy to differentiate male from female red zebra cichlids, but some unique traits can be found in both genders. 

While you won’t quickly notice any color differences (although males might be brighter than females, but not always), you can always look into their size. Females are fairly smaller than males and will rarely grow to be larger than 4 inches.

Also, look for the egg spots. These are round white bumps that look like grains of salt. You can find them next to the anal fin.

Males have more egg spots than females. Usually, a male will have four or more spots, while females will have three or fewer.

Is There an Albino Red Zebra Cichlid?

It is very rare to find an albino red zebra cichlid, but this might happen.

Albino red zebras are uncommon as they wouldn’t survive in nature. The gene for albinism is very limited in nature, and such fish are challenging to breed.

If you happen to run across an albino red zebra cichlid, expect these fish to have a white or pale pink body with yellow fins.

They are easily differentiated from other red zebra morphs not just because of their color, but also due to their bright red eyes.

However, many fish keepers I know have reported that their albino fish tend to live shorter than regular fish. In fact, most of my albino red zebras have died after just a few years!

As such, I would always be cautious before adding an albino cichlid to my collection.

Temperament and Behavior

red zebra african cichlid fish

Red zebras are active, bottom-dwelling fish. In nature, they live on lake rocks, so you might often find them burrowing under the substrate – especially if you have gravel. 

They are semi-aggressive fish, even though they are one of the most peaceful cichlid species. 

Their aggression mostly stems from their territorial nature. They aren’t necessarily bullies, like crowntail bettas or other cichlids, but they’ll hate having other fish on their territory. 

Also, while they might be fin nippers, they won’t do this as often as kribs. 

In general, if other fish leave them alone, they can co-exist in peace and won’t go around looking for trouble.

Health Problems

Unfortunately, red zebras are prone to several health issues, most of which are pretty common for mbuna fish.

For example, all African cichlids are in danger of swim bladder disease, as well as Malawi bloat

If left untreated, both of these conditions can lead to the death of your entire colony.

What’s even worse, red zebra cichlids are prone to tuberculosis! Tuberculosis is one of the few diseases that can be transmitted from fish to humans

Always wear gloves when dealing with a tank that has a diseased fish. If you have any other pets, such as cats or dogs, keep them from drinking contaminated water.

It’s essential to quarantine all sick fish and to give them proper medication as soon as possible. Treat them with antibiotics and add some aquarium salt or its homemade substitutes to the water.


Despite the health problems they can get, red zebra cichlids can have a rather long life – of course, if you’ve provided them with proper care and maintenance. 

It isn’t unheard of for these fish to live for 10 years or even more!

Their lifespan can depend on many factors, and one of them is genetics.

As I’ve mentioned, albino fish might live shorter than regular ones. 

Also, if you’ve bought your red zebra from a pet store and not from a reputable breeder, chances are the fish has some genetic defect you know nothing about. 

It’s important to have an open mind and to understand that not all fish will live their full life expectancy, even if you’ve done everything right.


red zebra african cichlid

Caring for red zebras is fairly easy. While it might differ a bit from how you’d care for dwarf cichlids, if you’ve ever kept any mbuna fish, you’ll know what to do. These are hardy fish that can withstand most water parameters and won’t get sick easily. 

However, this doesn’t mean they are good fish for beginners. The main reasons behind this are their somewhat nasty temperament and their need for a large tank. 

If this is your first time dealing with this mbuna cichlid, here’s everything you need to know: 


Feeding a red zebra cichlid is one of the easiest tasks. These fish are opportunistic omnivores that will eat almost anything.

In nature, their diet mostly consists of plankton and invertebrates. This means they’ll love brine shrimp! However, mine never refused bloodworms, as well. 

They’ll gladly munch on other foods you give them, as well. This includes cichlid pellets and algae flakes, but also human foods such as spirulina, spinach, and lettuce.

Your main concern should be to provide your red zebra cichlid with a proper mix of proteins and plant-based meals.

While some fish keepers claim their red zebras thrive on a protein-only diet, I would never suggest this. They need lots of minerals they can only get from plants, while proteins are important for their development and energy

The biggest concern when it comes to feeding a red zebra cichlid is overfeeding. These fish will eat even when they’re not hungry

Always give them the amount of food they can eat in a couple of minutes – the maximum in an hour. Take out any leftovers. This will ensure your cichlids only eat the amount of food they really need.

Tank Size

The tank size requirements are probably one of the main reasons why these fish aren’t as popular as some other, smaller cichlid species. Red zebra cichlids require 50-gallon tanks, or even larger.

The main reason for this is that you should always keep your red zebras in a group of at least 3-4. However, this alone isn’t enough. As you probably already know, you can usually keep 2-4 fish in a 5-gallon tank. So, why do 3-4 red zebra cichlids require 50 gallons?

This is due to their temperament. 

Red zebras are territorial fish that will fight to keep their territory safe from anyone who dares enter it. As such, they require more space than other, friendlier fish. 

While, theoretically, they can survive in smaller tanks, they will be stressed out. They might even fight with each other to death! 

Not just that, but these aren’t small fish. Due to their large size, they require more space than other fish. 

Sure, they might be fairly tiny when you first buy them, but adults grow to be the size of two adult thumbs!

While not many beginners like having large tanks due to their price and required space, large tanks have their own advantages. Most importantly – they make water parameters easier to maintain!

While we’re at that…

Water Parameters

Red zebra cichlids are hardy fish that can survive in most water parameters. They aren’t overly sensitive to changes in water temperature and pH, so they can survive in most conditions.

However, you should always strive to provide them with an environment that is as similar to their natural habitat as possible

As I’ve mentioned, these fish come from Lake Malawi. This means they prefer stagnant water, at least when compared to animals that originate from streams and rivers, such as danios, rasboras, or vampire shrimp.

As Lake Malawi mostly has rocky bottom – and the water is stagnant and without strong currents – its water is slightly alkalized. 

In fact, if you own this cichlid, it’s better to know all the possible ways to raise the pH of the water! These fish don’t like when their water is neutral, and if the pH drops too low, they can develop health problems. 

pH around 7.5 – 7.6 is about ideal, although they can survive in water with pH of up to 8.8! This is rather high for most freshwater fish. 

Also, they prefer warm water. Their favorite environments seem to be around 78°F!

Water temperature:Between 75°F and 85°F
pH levels:7.4 – 8.8
Water hardness:5 – 25 dGH

Remember, no matter how hardy red zebra cichlids are, they won’t do well with sudden water changes. Stability is the key.


No matter how resistant red zebras are, they still need a filter. In fact, you’ll need a large and powerful product that will be able to produce enough oxygen to supply such a large tank.

While sponge filters are my favorite, there’s really no need for them when you have red zebra cichlids. These fish and all their suitable tank mates are large enough not to get hurt by other filter types.

In general, canister filters might work the best as they are powerful, but won’t take up much space in the tank. Since cichlids are active fish, you need to give them as much free space as possible, and canister filters can come in handy. 

Another good choice is a hang-on back filter. While strong, this type of filter won’t create too much current, allowing your cichlids to live in a lake-like environment.

Light Requirements

While red zebra cichlids need some light in order to stay healthy, they are not demanding. They are highly adaptable and will adjust to almost all amounts of light.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that it would be healthy to keep the lights on during the night or to keep your aquarium in sunlight. However, you’ll be able to decorate the tank according to your liking, without worrying about how much of the tank’s surface will be covered.  


Red zebra cichlids are bottom-dwellers, and they love to burrow in the sand and gravel. As such, picking the right substrate is rather important. 

Most cichlids, including the red zebra, prefer a sand substrate. Fine sand is light enough for them to burrow with ease, and it will make your tank look stunning. 

However, they’ll do just fine in fine gravel, as well. Due to their size, they won’t have any issues burrowing in tiny rocks. This will mimic their natural habitat perfectly!


Due to their territorial yet playful nature, red zebra cichlids require lots of decorations.

Their preferred decorations include rocks and caves, as these can provide perfect hiding spots. This will also give any tank mates a decent place to hide if your cichlid becomes too aggressive. 

Most of the time, each cichlid will claim a cave or two, and this will be their assigned territory. If there are enough caves for everyone, there won’t be any reason for territorial behavior.

At the same time, these fish require lots of open space for swimming. If you have a large enough tank (here’s another reason why you should always get a big tank!), you’ll be able to give your cichlid a nice set up. 

A proper mixture of open space and hiding spots is crucial for ensuring your red zebra cichlids live a fairly peaceful life, without too much stress or aggression. 

As for live plants, things aren’t as straightforward.

Overall, red zebra cichlids love live plants. They can provide their tank with excitement and new hiding spots to enjoy in. 

However, some fast-growing plants, such as water wisteria, might take up too much space too fast. This can quickly make things complicated. 

Also, as red zebra cichlids love to burrow, they might ruin the plant roots. This can ruin your tank set up, as well as potentially kill the plant.

If you decide to keep live plants with cichlids, make sure you choose slow-growers and protect their roots with lots of decorations. This will keep the plants safe from mischievous red zebras.

Suitable Tank Mates

red zebra cichlid fish

First off, you should know that red zebra cichlids prefer living in a species-only tank. A general rule is to keep one male and 3-4 females to avoid territorial disputes between two males. 

If a tank is large enough, you might keep a few males together, as well. Just make sure there are at least two females for each male. 

However, it isn’t impossible to pair red zebra cichlids with other fish species. You just need to choose fish that are peaceful or that won’t get into the cichlid’s territory

This includes:

  • Clown loaches
  • Bristlenose plecos
  • Malawi spotted syno catfish
  • Other mbuna fish

Don’t combine them with other cichlid species, as they might be too aggressive toward one another. The same goes for other aggressive fish species such as bettas or tiger barbs

Adding shrimp is a bad idea. All red zebra cichlids will gladly munch on your cherry shrimp! The same goes for snails or any other small fish species that might fit into a cichlid’s mouth.


As red zebra cichlids are fairly easy to breed in captivity, most fish you can find in stores are captive-bred. In fact, you can probably breed them in your own tank without too many preparations!

When a male is ready to mate, he will prepare a nest in the substrate. If the female is up for it, she will lay eggs, then take them into her mouth. 

Yes, you’ve read that right.

Just like most other fish species from Lake Malawi, the red zebra cichlid is what is known as a mouthbrooder. This means they keep the fertilized eggs and fry inside their mouth until they’ve developed enough to be independent and swim freely.

What’s unique about red zebra cichlids is that a female will take care of the eggs. In most other mouthbrooding fish species I’ve encountered, such as the Banggai cardinalfish, males are the ones that will do the parenting. 

Usually, the female will allow her fry to get out when they are around four weeks old.

Unfortunately, once this happens, the parents usually stop caring for their young. This is why you should always keep them in a separate tank until they are fully grown. 

Take good care of water parameters and feed the younglings with baby brine shrimp or daphnia, and you’ll have lots of red zebra cichlids in no time!

Final Word

As you can see, caring for a red zebra cichlid is pretty simple and straightforward. The trickiest part is dealing with their temperament and taming it. 

If you provide them with a large enough tank, lots of swimming space, and plenty of caves they can claim, red zebra cichlids can be some of the most amazing aquatic pets you can find. 

However, the slightest mistake can turn them into huge bullies, so be very careful about your setup!

Overall, if you have enough space for a big tank, they are definitely worth all the hassle. If anything else, who wouldn’t want to see a female cichlid keeping all of her babies in her mouth?!