Red Zebra Cichlid: Ultimate Guide (Care, Diet, Breeding & More)

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Written By Matt Stevens

Hi, I'm Matt! I've been obsessed with fishkeeping for over 15 years now and created this site to share my knowledge with others.

Red Zebra Cichlid is a stunning rock-dwelling fish of African origin. They are among the highly sought-after Cichlids to grace even the most boring aquarium.

And when you think about the fish’s bright colors, slender bodies, and low maintenance, it’s hard to see why any aquarist would even think about turning them down. Not quite often do we see a beautiful Cichlid exhibit unique color mutations in captivity, but such is Red Zebra Cichlid.

We love these Cichlids and it hurts to see many people classify them as a naturally aggressive species. Well, they will always show slightly violent behavior in captivity but Red Zebras are not as aggressive as many people assume.

Obviously, we won’t use this guide to defend Red Zebra Cichlids to entirety but it is intended to change many aquarists’ perception of these fish.

Below, we discuss the fish’s lifespan, appearance, tank size, diet, behavior, tank mates, breeding, and much more. Perhaps after reading it, you will have a different opinion about the beautiful Red Zebras.

Species Overview

Red Zebra Cichlids are attractive rock-dwelling fish of Malawian descent. Precisely, these fish originate from Lake Malawi in central Africa and are sometimes called Maylandia estherae.

Interestingly, Red Zebra Cichlid’s name is not consistent with its appearance. One would think they have striped bodies like the actual zebra or maybe they are red-colored, but that’s far from it.

In fact, these fish are generally classified as African Cichlids and that’s the same name you’ll hear quite often in local pet stores.

It’s important to note that Red Zebra Cichlids belong to a distinct Cichlid group called Mbuna, consisting of as many as 13 genera of reasonably active Cichlids.

In the aquarium community, Red Zebra Cichlids go by other cute names such as the Orange Zebra Cichlid, Tilapia Zebra, Esther Grant’s Zebra, Orange Zebra, Mbuna, Red Zebra, Orange-Blue Mouth Breeder, and False Zebra Mbuna.

LifespanUp to 10 years
Care LevelIntermediate
Behavior & TemperamentSemi-aggressive
CompatibilitySome pleco and catfish species
Food and DietOmnivores, but mostly herbivores
SizeUp to 5 inches
Tank SetupFreshwater with open space and hiding spots
Tank Size (Minimum)55 gallons


Red Zebra Cichlids are known to live for up to 5-10 years in captivity. And that’s a consistent figure for both genders.

However, the typical lifespan will be influenced by the general tank water conditions. Keep them in a tranquil, spotless environment and they will easily hit the 10-year mark. Conversely, deprive them of the much-needed conditions and they’ll struggle to reach even half a decade.


Where do we begin? Like many Cichlids, Red Zebra Cichlids are just as stunning with their smooth appearance. Usually, this begins with a beautiful, torpedo-shaped body resembling most Cichlid species.

Interestingly, Red Zebra Cichlids produce different color mutations. We’ve seen both genders take on different color morphs including the red-blue, red-red, and albino strains for the males. On the other hand, the females take on solid orange or yellow coloration.

You won’t spot many differences between the male and female Red Zebra Cichlids, and perhaps that’s because both genders can take on just as varied color patterns. But in many cases, the female species will have a more pronounced blue hue compared to the vibrant orange in males.

In conclusion, Red Zebra Cichlids have elongated dorsal and anal fins. Also, the absence of horizontal stripes on their bodies allows them to stand out in confined environments.


Red Zebra Cichlids have a standard size of 5 inches in full maturity. Obviously, they are one of the smallest freshwater Cichlids if you need such a clarification.

Like any other species, nothing is guaranteed with Red Zebra Cichlid, not even the standard size. So, you can help them reach their full potential by always keeping them in a suitable environment with a befitting tank setup, the right tank mates, and a balanced diet.

Red Zebra Cichlid Care

Red Zebra Cichlid care is just interesting. These are hardy fish that will be less demanding both in captivity and the wild.

Their care requirements almost resemble most Cichlid species, and they should remain healthy as long as you strictly follow the general guidelines for keeping them. As usual, you should match these fish to the same conditions they are fond of in their natural environment, Lake Malawi.

Below, we address such aspects in more detail;

Tank Size

Firth things first, Red Zebra Cichlids want a minimum tank size of 55 gallons. They might not be one of the most aggressive Cichlids, but Red Zebras can get quite territorial if kept in a subpar environment with the wrong tank mates.

Giving them enough space can help to relieve tension and perhaps give you the best experience with your lovely Cichlids.

Water Parameters

As far as water parameters go, it will be all about trying to match the conditions in the fish’s original habitat.

Sometimes, aquarists will try their best to create an even better environment in captivity and that means consistently monitoring the pH levels, water temperatures, and hardness.

Here’s what we mean by standard or stable water parameters;

  • Water Temperature: 72°F-82°F
  • Water Hardness: Moderately hardy
  • pH Levels: 7.5-8.5

One of the simplest ways to monitor these parameters is to measure the tank water status from time to time.

That way, it will be easier to maintain the tank water conditions in the best possible state by determining if they suit your fish. At this point, purchasing a suitable aquarium testing kit should be a no-brainer.

What to Put in Their Tank?

Like many cichlids endemic to Lake Malawi, Red Zebras prefer enough hardscapes in their new territory. They are exciting rock-dwelling fish in the wild, and will always hide in specific places like caves. In captivity, they need nothing short of an ideal environment.

They will want plenty of hiding spots to feel more secure, and comfortable in the new habitat.

Being such a hardy species, you can settle for one of sand or gravel as the right substrate. The male Red Zebras can always rearrange the aquarium from time to time but you shouldn’t panic when you see this. It’s their typical behavior in captivity especially when they want to mark their territory.

Despite their moderate body sizes, Red Zebra Cichlids produce enough waste to sour the tank water.

And excess amounts of nitrates, nitrites, and ammonia can always reduce the tank water quality. Accordingly, you should invest in the right filtration equipment to help control the level of contaminants inside the tank.

Common Diseases

Firstly, Red Zebra Cichlids are highly susceptible to Malawi bloat if you feed them on a poor diet or keep them in a substandard environment. This is a common freshwater ailment targeting many Cichlid fish of African descent.

Usually, Malawi bloat disease symptoms include loss of appetite, bloating, and excessive hiding. It can be fatal with its fast progression especially when it attacks the digestive system.

Treating Malawi bloat disease is extremely challenging. So, the safest path at any given time is to prevent this disease by regulating the fish’s diet in captivity and providing ideal tank water conditions.

Also, Ich is another common issue with Red Zebra Cichlids. It might not be as devastating as the Malawi bloat disease but can easily spread to the entire community. Consequently, you must quarantine the infected fish and get a suitable treatment plan to save your fish’s life.

Finally, Red Zebra Cichlids can be vulnerable to skin flukes as well as other parasitic, bacterial, and fungal infections.

Diet and water quality are the two most significant aspects of effective Red Zebra Cichlid care. And that’s what you should focus on if you have these fish at home.

Also, pay keen attention every time you introduce anything to Red Zebra’s habitat because, sometimes, you can contaminate the tank water without even realizing it.

What Do Red Zebra Cichlids Eat?

Most African Cichlids are omnivores, and Red Zebra Cichlids will adopt a similar feeding pattern. They aren’t picky eaters in the wild and feed on zooplankton and small invertebrates.

In captivity, their behavior will resemble a typical herbivorous species, with their feeding pattern more inclined to plant matter.

As you would expect with any Cichlid, overfeeding can easily trouble Red Zebra varieties. They can readily gain excess weight if you don’t control their diet, which later exposes them to endless health complications.

Usually, we recommend a perfectly crafted feeding routine involving small amounts of food, multiple times a day. Also, try to reduce the amount of leftover food by restricting your Red Zebras to just a few minutes (at least 2 minutes) of eating.  

Behavior & Temperament

Shall we call them an aggressive species just yet? Perhaps not.

Red Zebra Cichlids are not such an aggressive species, especially when compared to other Cichlid types like the Wolf varieties.

However, they are quite territorial and that’s the biggest reason you must go with the right tank set up at any given time.

Giving them ideal tank decorations with caves and rocks as part of the hiding spots will help them mark their territories without engaging in any squabbles with other fish.

As long as everybody enjoys their space, you will witness so much peace inside Red Zebra Cichlid’s habitat.

Red Zebra Cichlid Tank Mates

Choosing the best tank mates for the Red Zebra Cichlids is simple; just stick with other non-aggressive species of similar size. However, be sure to create a large tank with adequate hiding places.

As long as the aquarium is large enough to accommodate everyone, you can experiment with suitable buddies like some catfish species and plecos and see how they interact with your Cichlids.

Having more females than males in the tank will limit any aggressive tendencies and might be enough to help you create a dream aquarium.


Red Zebra Cichlid breeding is possible in captivity. Usually, it kicks off with the right male to female ratio and we recommend 1:3 for that matter.

When breeding initially begins, the male Red Zebra Cichlids will try to capture the female’s attention by using whatever means they can. Typically, this involves flashing their vibrant bodies to entice the easygoing females.  

If the female is equally interested, she will follow the male’s lead into his zone and lay up to 60 eggs. Interestingly, Red Zebra Cichlids are mouthbrooders so the female will collect all the newly laid eggs into her mouth and jumpstart the incubation process that goes on for the next 14 days after fertilization.

Then, the eggs will hatch as soon as the incubation period is complete, giving rise to new fry inside the tank.

During the first few weeks of their lives, the baby fish will be happy to feed on the egg sacs. This continues for at least another 3 weeks.

Later, they will start fending for themselves as soon as they’ve learned how to swim. Still, you can feed them on daphnia and baby brine shrimp during the same period.

Final Thoughts

In our opinion, Red Zebra Cichlids have been wrongly judged as an outright aggressive species for the longest time.

They may show slight aggression sometimes, but everything depends on the nature of the environment. With the right tank setup, suitable tank mates, and enough hiding spots, you should find it easier to keep a healthy Red Zebra Cichlid population regardless of your experience level.

Here’s hoping this guide has been beneficial in shaping your opinion about Red Zebra Cichlids. If you need an incredibly active Cichlid fish with an exciting color mutation, you won’t have better options than Red Zebras.

Even then, everything depends on your ability to give them the best possible tank water conditions. Ready to experiment with a distinct Cichlid fish and a peace-loving species? Let’s hear your opinion.