Zebra cichlid stats infographicThe Zebra Cichlid or Metriaclima callainos is a beautiful freshwater species unique to Lake Malawi, one of Africa’s Great Rift lakes. This species is also known as the Orange African Cichlid, one of the first African fish imported for fish keeping. This article will help you understand Zebra Cichlid care, maintenance, and breeding.

Zebra Cichlid is a species with an affinity for rocky tanks and low vegetation. They are a classification of cichlid known as Mbuna or rock-dwelling from their native habitat of the deeper, rocky waters of Lake Malawi in east Africa.

Zebra Cichlid can be found in highly rocky areas around small islands or rocky outcroppings surrounded by sand. They live in the caverns and small caves created by large rocks jumbled together. They are primarily solitary and use their strong jaws to feed on algae, small insects, or crustaceans.

The color of the Zebra Cichlid can vary. In Lake Malawi, the male Zebra Cichlid is usually a beautiful bright blue. In the United States, the species has been bred to produce a male of a bright red and orange hue in particular.

These fish are called the Orange Zebra Cichlid, Orange African Cichlid, or Orange Cichlid fish and are quite beautiful. Both the species’ males and females can morph into vibrant blues, yellows and reds or the blue-on-blue striped patterns that give its distinctive name. This ability to change color is known as polychromatism.

The soft, rayed part of the Anal fin has four orange egg spots. These spots become significant at mating time. The rear edge of the Dorsal fin has a row of less distinct spots as well. The males tend to be larger, more colorful, and more aggressive. Females can be muted in color and have more round body shapes. Both have fins close to the body but are mighty swimmers. If well cared for, the Zebra Cichlid lifespan can be as long as 10 years.

Zebra Cichlid Stats

Listed tank sizes are the minimum.

Size: Up to 4.75 inches (12cm)
Tank: 48 inches
Strata: Bottom, middle, top
PH: 7.5 to 8.5
Hardness: Hard to very hard
Temperature: 77°F to 82°F (22 to 28°C)


Order: Perciformes
Suborder: Percoidei
Family: Cichlidae
Genera: Metriaclima
Species: Callainos

Zebra Cichlid Care

Because of their aggressive nature to other fish species and even to other Zebra Cichlid, this species requires a massive tank design to encourage separate territories. Consider a 48 inch or 50-gallon aquarium the minimum size with an ideal size up to 250 gallons.

As their native habitat is rock and cave based, setting a good base of gravel with lots of larger rocks arranged to make caves will help them feel at home. If you plan to keep more than a few Zebra Cichlid, try to arrange the rocks and caverns to minimize the line of sight between them to limit eye contact and aggression.

The Zebra Cichlid size ranges up to nearly 8 inches. Planning caverns to hold fish that large will make it easier to maintain your aquarium without drastic changes over the long term.

Building a few separate territories can make lovely tank displays and help keep your Zebra Cichlid out of each other’s zones. If you start your tank with juvenile fish, size the caverns for adult fish so you will not have to rearrange the décor continually.

Plants are generally not a good idea for a Zebra Cichlid aquarium. This species is a rooter and will dig up the vegetative matter, leaving you with torn plants that can clog aquarium filters. Similarly, putting driftwood in the aquarium can encourage the fish to dig it up. The tannins can lower the pH in the water to unacceptable levels.

Clean, hard freshwater is essential for the long-term care of Zebra cichlid. It is recommended you double the standard filtration required for your size Zebra Cichlid aquarium. This also helps with some movement in the water to ensure adequate oxygenation. This cichlid species moves gravels by mouth to build nests so underground filters will be exposed and nibbled on. If possible, keep as much of the filtration system outside of the tank as possible.

The ideal pH range for a Zebra Cichlid aquarium is 7.5 to 8.5. To help maintain the hardness of the water, consider adding crushed coral to the gravel.

Zebra Cichlid Tank Mates

The zebra cichlid or metriaclima callainosManaging aggression in Zebra Cichlid can be difficult. Proper tankmate selection for Zebra Cichlid compatibility goes a long way to removing potential conflicts and keeping the tank healthy.

Mixing different types or sizes of cichlids is usually not a good idea. Keeping all cichlids in the aquarium, the Mbuna, rock-oriented style is much better for reducing conflict.

Species and patterns such as Auratus, Johanni, Kenyi, and Pindani make better choices, especially when their respective colorations are markedly different from the resident Zebra Cichlid. This is a good tank strategy if you want to keep more than one male in the tank. The Synodontis Catfish is also a good tank mate. Zebra cichlids are far too aggressive for species such as Haplochromis or Peacock Cichlids.

Beyond aquarium layout, here are a few other strategies to minimize conflict between tank mates.

Keep fish that are similar in size. They are less likely to single out small fish for bullying.

Zebra Cichlid Breeding

To the delight of aquarium keepers, the Zebra Cichlid can be bred in captivity. Some keepers even breed-specific fish to help develop specific colors or morphing patterns.

The main difficulty in breeding this species is that you do not know if your fish are fertile. Many keepers and commercial houses have created species hybrids that many of the fish you buy can be sterile. If you want to breed Zebra Cichlid, make sure you purchase from a source that will guarantee the fertility of the fish they sell.

They do not mate for life so trying to establish breeding pairs is a wasted effort. To encourage breeding, try to have four or more females to every male as your starting population.

Zebra Cichlid does not have a mating season. The start of breeding can be observed, although often breeding behavior can be mistaken for aggressive behavior, especially when you have more than one male in an aquarium. Behaviors indicative of courtship include jaw locking, nipping, fin displays, and chasing.

Suppose you see your male Zebra Cichlid shivering or dancing. In that case, that is an excellent indicator that he is trying to attract the attention of an egg-bearing female. He will try to get her to lay her eggs in his territory.

Zebra Cichlid is mouthbrooders in that the eggs are reared in the female’s mouth. As the female drops eggs, she picks them up in her mouth, with the male staying close by. Egg clutches usually contain anywhere from 10 to 50 eggs. Once she is done laying eggs, the male encourages her to follow the egg-shaped and colored spots near his anal fin so he can release sperm to fertilize the eggs held in her mouth.

As soon as the spawning is done, the male will drive the female out of his territory. She will swim freely if other fish do not bully her for 10 to 15 days until the eggs hatch and she releases the fry from her mouth. Do not try to move an egg-carrying Zebra Cichlid female into another tank. The stress of moving could cause her to drop the eggs, which would kill them.

Zebra Cichlid Diet

All Mbuna cichlid are herbivores, so the ideal diet for your zebra cichlids is plant-based. If they eat more than a bit of animal protein, it can cause them to bloat or die. The easiest way to feed them is to use sinking, pelletized food explicitly made for herbivore cichlids.

To add variety to their diet, you can augment small pieces of lettuce, spinach, zucchini, or squash. Feeding several small meals each day will help deal with tank aggression.


  • Zebra cichlidDouble the recommended filtration for your tank size to keep the water clean for Zebra Cichlid.
  • Keep as much of the hardware and hoses out of the tank as you can so they are not chewed upon.
  • Purchase breeding stock from sellers that will certify their fertility.
  • Help control aggression by feeding smaller meals several times a day.
  • Avoid feeding animal proteins to your Zebra Cichlid.
  • Keep a ratio of one male to four or more females to encourage breeding.

The Zebra Cichlid allows aquarium keepers to have colorful, active fish to keep true to the species or breed to encourage many different colors and traits. They may be a challenging species to keep but reward you with opportunities to expand your fish-keeping skills.

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