How to Care for Red Zebra Cichlid: Diet, Tank Mates, Breeding

an orange red zebra cichlid

Red Zebra Cichlids (Maylandia estherae) are incredibly hardy and easy fish to care for, making them ideal for aquarists who want to start with Mbuna cichlids. However, they are also territorial fish, which requires special care and attention when preparing the aquarium and keeping the fish.

Native to the submerged rocky shores of Lake Malawi in Africa, Red Zebra Cichlids are one of the most common cichlids enjoyed by fish-keeping hobbyists. In this article, we will explore all aspects of caring for Red Zebra Cichlids, including their diet, tank mates, breeding, and more.

Red Zebra Cichlid Species Profile

Scientific name:  Maylandia estherae
Common names:Red Zebra Cichlid, Esther Grant’s Zebra, Red Zebra Mbuna
Origin:Lake Malawi, East Africa
Size: 4-5 inches (10-13 cm)
Color: Black body with red stripes, red fins
Lifespan5-10 years
Care level:Easy

The Red Zebra Cichlid, also known as Esther Grant’s Zebra and Red Zebra Mbuna, is a freshwater fish from Lake Malawi in East Africa. It is a member of the Cichlidae family, which includes over 1,000 species of fish. Red Zebra Cichlids are typically 4-5 inches long, with males being slightly larger than females. They can live for up to 10 years in captivity.

Contrary to what their name suggests, Red Zebra Cichlids are not always red, nor do they look like zebras. This is because they are polymorphic, meaning they can have different physical traits. They can be beige, brown, blue, orange, yellow, or pink. Regardless of their coloration, Red Zebra Cichlids share many physical characteristics. They have a distinctive body shape that is tapered at the head and has a long, flowing dorsal fin. Their fins are thin and ray-like, and they are often transparent. Some species have a conspicuous stripe along the dorsal fin or leopard-like patterns on the caudal fin.

a rare Red Zebra Cichlid
The most popular varieties of Red Zebra Cichlids are those with multiple colors or striped patterns.

Red Zebra Cichlids are often mislabeled in pet stores and aquatic shops, which can make it difficult to purchase the right species. They are commonly labeled as “African cichlids” or “Assorted African Cichlids.” However, it’s important to know the exact species of fish you’re getting, as different species have different care requirements, parameters, and temperaments.

Red Zebra Cichlid Diet

Red Zebra Cichlids are omnivorous fish that eat both plants and animals. In the wild, they mainly feed on algae and biofilm, which is a biological system composed of algae, bacteria, and invertebrates, on rocks and substrate. They are opportunistic feeders and will also eat small insects and other invertebrates when they get the chance. In the aquarium, Red Zebra Cichlids can be fed a mostly herbivorous diet, but they are gluttons and will readily accept virtually any type of food offered.

To keep Red Zebra Cichlids healthy and happy, one important thing to consider is variety. Monotony can lead to boredom and even malnutrition in these vibrant creatures. So, don’t be afraid to mix things up! You can feed them a variety of foods, such as flakes, pellets, frozen food, or live food. Some recommended food options include spirulina flakes, brine shrimp, bloodworms, krill, and daphnia. It is important to avoid overfeeding them, as this can lead to health problems. A good rule of thumb is to feed them small amounts of food several times a day.

Tank Setup and Water Parameters

Minimum Tank Size: 55 gallons
Water hardness6–15 dGH
Temperature72–82°F (22.2–27.8°C)
Lightingmoderate to normal lighting

To ensure that Red Zebra Cichlids have enough space to establish territories and reduce aggression, it is recommended to use a tank that is at least 55 gallons in size. This size will be sufficient for 3-5 fish.

To maintain a healthy environment for Red Zebra Cichlids, the water should be slightly alkaline with a pH range of 7.5-8.5. For African cichlids, anything below 7.4 is dangerous, so it is best to keep the levels above 7.4. If your tap water is on the acidic to neutral side, use coral sand or crushed coral as substrate in your tank, as it helps to maintain the desired pH level. Use an aquarium heater to achieve the ideal water temperature of 72 to 82 degrees Fahrenheit. Monitor the temperature regularly using an in-tank thermometer.

This fish loves to dig! Use a substrate that is sandy, soft, and devoid of sharp edges. This will provide the fish with a place to hide and lay their eggs. Add live plants to your tank if possible. These plants can help improve the water quality and provide the fish with additional hiding places. You can also add caves, rocks, and driftwood to provide more hiding places and make it more natural-looking.

Suitable Tank Mates

When it comes to selecting tank mates for Red Zebra Cichlids, the key lies in choosing species that can coexist without triggering aggressive behavior. Generally, opt for fish from the same region as the Red Zebras, specifically other cichlids from Lake Malawi in Africa. Compatible cichlid species include the Electric Yellow Cichlid (Labidochromis caeruleus), Acei Cichlid (Pseudotropheus acei), and the Rusty Cichlid (Iodotropheus sprengerae). These fish tend to have similar temperaments and space requirements, making it more likely for them to peacefully share the same tank.

Red zebra cichlids are considered moderately aggressive, although they are more peaceful than other cichlids. However, they are territorial and will become aggressive if they do not have enough space. They may harass or even kill other fish in their territory.

It is important to avoid keeping passive fish with red zebra cichlids, as they will likely be targeted. Tetras, guppies, and other timid species should not be kept in the same tank.

How to Sex Red Zebra Cichlids

Identifying whether a Red Zebra Cichlid is male or female involves paying attention to distinct characteristics. Males often have anal and dorsal fins with finely pointed tips that shape into a noticeable “V.” Their colors tend to be bolder, and their bodies are more robust. It’s worth noting that some males might exhibit a touch of bluish coloring, either on their fins or their bodies, setting them apart from females.

a male red zebra cichlid
Male Red Zebra Cichlids are typically more aggressive than female Red Zebra Cichlids.

Females, on the other hand, showcase their own set of traits. Their coloration can range from reddish-orange tones to a slightly diffused appearance. Notably, the tips of their dorsal and anal fins take on a rounded form, resembling a gentle “U.” Interestingly, both male and female Red Zebra Cichlids possess egg spots, which are vividly colored marks found on the anal fin. However, relying solely on these egg spots to determine gender isn’t entirely reliable, as they often indicate dominance within the group rather than a clear gender distinction. In some cases, even dominant females might sport more pronounced markings than subordinate males.

To accurately differentiate between male and female Red Zebra Cichlids, it’s helpful to observe a couple of key traits. Males typically sport a more intense orange coloration, while females lean toward a more pronounced blue color. Additionally, you can consider the number of egg spots on their anal fins. Once mature, males generally exhibit 4–7 egg spots, while females typically display 0–3 egg spots. By closely examining these nuanced differences, you can gain a better understanding of these captivating fish and their intriguing gender characteristics.


Breeding Red Zebra Cichlids in your tank can be pretty easy. They become ready to have babies when they’re about three years old, or around 3 inches long.

Here’s how you can do it:

  1. Get the Numbers Right: For every male Red Zebra Cichlid you have, you’ll want about three females. This balance sets the scene for breeding and will give you better odds that they will spawn. And you won’t need a special tank or change the water; they’ll do their thing naturally.
  2. Time to Woo: Watch for a male cichlid to create a nest in a cave. He’ll show off his colorful body to attract females. If a female is interested, she’ll follow him into the cave and lay eggs on a flat spot, usually a rock. The female gathers up to 60 eggs in her mouth, and the male fertilizes them with his sperm.
  3. Hatching and Growing: In about 20 days, the eggs hatch into tiny fish called fry. The female will carry them in her mouth for a while before letting them swim freely in the tank. As they grow, you can feed the fry small foods like baby brine shrimp or daphnia. Once they’re around six months old, it’s a good idea to move them into their own tanks.

Are Red Zebra Cichlids Right For You?

Red Zebra Cichlids are a popular freshwater fish species that can be a great addition to your aquarium if you are looking for a colorful and active fish. However, remember that they can be aggressive and territorial, especially during the breeding season. Therefore, it is important to research their care requirements and compatibility with other fish before adding them to your aquarium. If you are willing to provide the necessary care and attention, Red Zebra Cichlids can be a rewarding and fascinating species to keep.

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