Tank Mates, Diet, Size & Lifespan



Red zebra cichlids are a gorgeous freshwater species that you need to see in person. Their stunning appearance and lively temperament makes them quite exciting to own!

This guide will teach you everything you need to know about red zebra cichlid care. We’ll cover their size, diet, lifespan, potential tank mates, and more.

Species Summary

The red zebra cichlid (Maylandia estherae) is a colorful fish species with a big personality. It’s an African cichlid native to Lake Malawi in East Africa. That body of water is the only place you’ll find these fish in the wild, making them a sought-after creature for collectors.

Red zebra cichlid swimming in an aquarium

These vibrantly colored cichlids are beautiful, and they prefer to live in unique environments. They’re rock-dwellers residing in caves and rocky habitats in the wild. In captivity, they’re often the species of choice for beautiful hardscaped aquariums.

Like other cichlids, these freshwater fish can pose some unique challenges. But the proper care and planning can make them wonderful additions to your aquarium.


Despite its name, the red zebra cichlid is not always red. Nor does it always sport stripes! 

Some specimens have the signature fiery color, but this species is polymorphic. That means they come in a wide range of colors. For this reason, some pet stores label them “assorted African cichlids.”

You can find red zebras in shades of blue, beige, pink, yellow, brown, and more. The most sought-after varieties are multi-colored or have striped patterns.

Regardless of the color, these fish have many universal features. They have a signature cichlid body shape. The profile is sleek, and the head is slightly rounded to a soft point. The dorsal fin is expansive, stretching most of the fish’s length behind the head.

Their fins are ray-shaped and usually transparent. Some fish have a bold stripe on the dorsal fin or leopard-like dotting on the caudal fin.

Author Note: One of the most defining features is on the anal fin. Red zebra cichlids have egg-shaped spots, usually in a high-contrast color, making them highly visible. Males have four to seven spots, while females can have up to three or none at all. This is an easy way to tell if you’re looking at a male or female.

Average Red Zebra Cichlid Size

This species isn’t the biggest member of the cichlid family. A full-grown red zebra cichlid reaches a maximum size of around five inches long. Most aquarists would agree that the size of this species is just right for the hobby.

They’re not so big that you need a massive tank, but they’re large enough to appreciate their beauty even from across the room.


It’s impossible to make guarantees for any fish, but the red zebra cichlid usually has a lifespan of five to ten years when given proper care.

As always, the quality of their habitat, the diet you provide, and how well you maintain the tank make a difference. Genetics can also come into play, but poor husbandry can cause unnecessary stress and open the fish up to many diseases (more on that later).

Red Zebra Cichlid Care

Overall, the red zebra cichlid is a relatively easy fish to take care of in captivity. It’s adaptable and doesn’t have many distinct care requirements outside what you’d typically experience with freshwater fish. But like any other species, it has its preferences and unique quirks.

Follow these care guidelines, and you’ll have no problem keeping these fish healthy for years to come.

Tank Size

An appropriately sized tank is one of the most important things you need to start your red zebra cichlid’s life on the right foot. This species needs to live in an aquarium that holds at least 55 gallons.

Author Note: Ideally, the dimensions of the tank should be horizontally oriented with a minimum of 48 inches of swimming space.

Red zebra cichlids aren’t particularly large, but they are territorial. Cramped tanks can cause a nightmare of aquatic aggression, turning these otherwise carefree fish into a mess of stress. With 55 gallons, a full-grown red zebra cichlid will have ample room and should stay out of trouble.

The space also provides enrichment and enough space to create the right environment.

If you plan on keeping more than one cichlid, it’s wise to allocate no less than five additional gallons per fish. Keep that in mind and size up accordingly based on how many fish you plan to keep.

Water Parameters

The best thing you can do to keep your fish healthy is to maintain stable water conditions. These fish are exclusive to Lake Malawi, so that should be your reference for water parameters. Lake Malawi has alkalized water.

It’s rocky, causing the minerals to raise the pH levels slightly above neutral. Being in Africa, the temperatures are warm, and the current is relatively low. Here’s a quick breakdown of the parameters to follow.

  • Water temperature: 72 to 82 degrees Fahrenheit
  • pH levels: 7.5 to 8.5 (Slightly above neutral is best)
  • Water hardness: Up to 25 sGH

Stability is key when it comes to red zebra cichlid care. They can adapt well to slight fluctuations, but anything sudden can cause stress and illness.

What To Put Inside Their Tank

Red zebra cichlids prefer environments that most aquarists aren’t used to creating. While many popular freshwater species like lush tanks full of vegetation and driftwood, that’s not the case here. Lake Malawi is full of rocks, and this fish needs to have a similar hardscaped habitat in captivity.

Start with a layer of the substrate. You can use fine sand, smooth rocks, or small pebbles.

Author Note: Avoid anything too rough or pointy. The red zebra cichlid has a habit of rearranging decor and moving substrate as it defines its territory. Anything too rough could cause accidental injury.

Next, use rocks to create a beautiful landscape the fish can explore. You’re free to use premade plastic caves, but it’s easy to build something custom with natural rocks. Create caves, tunnels, and multiple hiding spots.

Maylandia estherae

Having hiding spots is particularly important if you plan on keeping a group of cichlids in the tank. It will help ease territorial aggression and give every fish its space.

Make sure to anchor everything directly to the glass and use fish-safe aquarium cement to help you secure objects in the tank. These fish are notorious for moving items around, so there’s a risk of tumbles and possible glass damage if the rocks aren’t secure.

These fish have no direct preference for lighting. Moderate lighting is fine. Add a capable canister or hang-on-back filter, and you’re good to go!

Plants are unnecessary for this species. In fact, adding them would be pointless. Not only will they not fit in with the decor, but the red zebra cichlid will likely uproot and destroy them anyways.

Common Possible Diseases

Red zebra cichlids can fall ill with all the usual diseases that plague freshwater fish. That includes highly contagious Ich and bacterial infections. Make sure to maintain those water conditions and replace about a quarter of the water weekly to control ammonia and nitrate levels.

These fish produce a good amount of waste, so regular cleaning and tank maintenance are necessary.

In addition to those usual problems, red zebra cichlids are susceptible to Malawi Bloat and swim bladder disease.

Malawi bloat is a digestive issue that often affects African cichlids from Lake Malawi. It happens when the fish eats the wrong types of foods or isn’t getting enough nutrition. Stress and incorrect water conditions can cause trouble, too.

This disease causes the belly to swell up. It can eventually cause kidney and liver issues if left untreated. Fortunately, vets can provide medications to address it.

Swim bladder disease is another issue related to digestion. It often occurs when you overfeed red zebra cichlids, resulting in constipation. The swim bladder suffers, causing noticeable buoyancy issues as the fish attempts to swim.

You can turn to medications or increase fiber intake with vegetables to treat swim bladder disease.

Food & Diet

Speaking of food, what does a red zebra cichlid like to eat?

These fish are highly opportunistic omnivores. In the wild, they typically survive on invertebrates and plankton. They will eat pretty much anything, and they have healthy appetites.

The best diet is one that includes a mix of proteins and plant-based foods. Avoid protein-only diets. Too much meat can create digestive troubles and the aforementioned Malawi bloat.

You can provide cichlid pellets. They’re nutritionally balanced, and a color-focused formula can bring out this species’ vibrancy. If you prefer to create a diet from scratch, you can offer up the following:

  • Lettuce
  • Spinach
  • Duckweed
  • Spirulina
  • Algae flakes
  • Brine shrimp
  • Bloodworms

Author Note: Feed red zebra cichlids three to four times a day. It’s better to provide small meals than one large one. Provide enough food that they can eat in about two minutes, and you can avoid overfeeding.

Behavior & Temperament

Red zebra cichlids are considered moderately aggressive, but it’s probably most accurate to consider them more territorial than anything else. Cichlids, as a whole, have a reputation for being violent towards other tank mates.

That can be true with this species, but the right tank setup can prevent issues.

This fish prefers to have its own space. It can cohabitate well in a small group but needs to have an area it can call its own.

That’s why having a sizable tank with strategic decor is such an important part of red zebra cichlid care. A tank that is too cramped will cause the fish to run into each other constantly. That’s when aggression comes out.

You must have hardscaping to block views and give the fish tons of enrichment. Otherwise, you’re asking for trouble!

Throughout the day, you can observe your red zebra cichlids exploring the tanks, swimming in and out of rock formations, and tidying up their area. They like to move things around, so don’t get too connected to where you place objects in their tank. Don’t be surprised if you spot them digging up the substrate and creating hills.

Red Zebra Cichlid Tank Mates

When it comes to red zebra cichlid tank mates, avoid super-aggressive cichlids and larger fish. While these fish can defend themselves, they’re no match for a wolf cichlid or other monstrous species.

It’s possible to keep this fish in a multi-species community tank. However, you must pair them with like-minded tank mates or those who don’t encroach on their territory.

They do fine with bottom-dwellers like certain types of plecos and catfish. They can also tolerate other cichlids. Some good species to consider include:

  • Bumblebee Cichlids
  • Cuckoo Catfish
  • Bristlenose Pleco
  • Aurora Cichlid
  • Featherfin Squeaker
  • Hongi Cichlids
  • Clown Squeaker


The breeding process for red zebra cichlids is interesting. But before you see it, you have to find a compatible pair.

Set up a separate breeding tank. It should have identical parameters to the main tank and have similar decor. However, it shouldn’t contain any other fish.

Breeders usually breed a group of one male and three females. Males will attract the females to their territory using their flashy colors and swimming patterns. The pair will mate, and the female will lay up to 30 eggs on a flat surface.

After fertilization, she scoops them up in her mouth as they develop. Red zebra cichlids are mouthbrooders. Typically, it’s the male that does this odd behavior. But for this species, it’s all about maternal mouthbrooding.

The mother keeps the eggs in her mouth for the entire development process. The eggs hatch in about two weeks, and the fry will absorb the egg sac. All the while, she keeps them safe!

In total, the mouthbrooding process takes about four weeks. At that point, the fry are free-swimming and can receive daphnia or baby brine shrimp for food.

Wrapping Up

While these freshwater fish can be feisty, red zebra cichlid care is actually quite straightforward. All it takes is an understanding of their natural environment, their temperament, and a little space to help them thrive!

If you have any questions about these fish, let us know! We’ll gladly help you out.


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