Red zebra cichlid is a freshwater fish that astonishes everyone with its polymorphic or dynamic color-changing abilities. These species look pretty attractive in aquariums while swimming around in groups with hyperactive tendencies.

They look similar to African cichlids, and their appearance in multiple colors often confuse the viewers to identify them.

They are moderately easy to rear in fish tanks, and that is why experienced keepers show great interest in bringing them home.

But here we are going to tell you about the fundamental requirements you must fulfill in order to keep red zebra cichlids healthy, active, peaceful, and long-lived. You will also learn about its characteristics, behavior, types, breeding, tank mates, and much more.

Fact: Earlier, they were called orange-blue mouth breeders, but after facing many years of identity crisis, this fish finally got its specific scientific name in 1995.

Species Overview

About Fish
Scientific Name Maylandia Estherae
NickNames Red Zebra Mbuna, Esther Grant’s Zebra
Family Cichlidae
Source Lake Malawi: Africa
Average Age 10 years
Average Length 10-12.5 cm
Type Freshwater
Color Pattern Light blue, white, orange-red, brownish-beige

What is Their Natural Habitat?

Red zebra cichlids are natural dwellers of Africa, where they are found in the tropical, slow-moving freshwater region.

The most prominent place to locate them is the lake Malawi, or in Tanzania and Mozambique, and hence are often called mbuna cichlid. A significant part of the population is widely spread in nearby water bodies.

These species are seen in five other places, which are Minos reef, Chilucha reef, Metangula, Nkhungu, and Masinje. They usually live on the eastern coast between Narunga and Metangula.

It prefers to stay on the rocky bed of the water, where it can comfortably hide in the crevices.

What is the Recorded Size of This Species

It is fascinating to note that the red zebra cichlid varies in maximum length depending on the specific type and living environment. Another notable fact is that it grows faster and lengthier in the captive region compared to the open wild waters.

A full-grown species in the wild may reach up to four inches, while in the fish tanks, it may attain a maximum length of about five inches.

What Do They Look Like?

It is an optimum size fish for home aquariums and possesses a naturally complete shape, i.e., a long conic body with floating fins.

They have a nice triangular tail fin or anal fin, and short dorsal and pelvic fins, which seem almost translucent at the edges.

The red zebra cichlid forms distinct colors against the typical red or black bars, which the name suggests. The most common shades found in them are red, beige, blue, pink, yellow, albino, etc.

They are available in a large variety, and each fish has its unique characteristic appearance. Let’s check out some of the popular ones in the fish market.

Fact: There are about 13 genera of mbuna species identified in the region with different colors and personalities.

Types of Red Zebra Cichlid

  • Red Top Zebra Cichlid: These are light blue colored fish with slightly orangish or reddish dorsal and anal fins. At times dark stripes appear on their body, which may be related to their mood. Also known as red zebra mbuna cichlid, they can grow up to 4.5 inches.
  • Albino Red Top Zebra Cichlid: Like any other albino species, they also possess a milky white body and red eyes with dark yellow dorsal and anal fins. They can grow between 4-5 inches.
  • Cherry Red Zebra Cichlid: Also known as super red zebra, these are deep red colored species with black eyes and a total length between 1.5-2.5 inches. The dorsal and anal fins appear translucent with red edges.
  • Ice Blue Red Top Zebra Cichlid: These fish are bright blue in color with light blue fins. It attains a maximum size of about 5.4 inches.
  • Red Blotch Zebra Cichlid: It is an aquaculture variant possessing a reddish-orange body with dark lines, and orange fins. No two species are identical in appearance. They can reach up to 3.9 inches in length.
  • Find out more on freshwater aquarium Maingano Cichlid
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How Long Do They Live?

These are hardy species and are habitual to survive in extreme conditions. While in the lake or in open waters in the wild they might only live for 5-6 years.

But it has been observed by expert fish keepers that if the red zebra cichlid is kept under proper care in aquariums, it can live a healthy life of up to 10 years.

Differentiating Male vs. Female Fish

It is hard to distinguish between a male and a female red zebra cichlid. The most noticeable differences are in their shades, but it requires a lot of experience to pinpoint the gender. Here are the core differences between the two-

  • The males naturally found in the lake are in a bluish shade with dark-colored bars, while female fish are usually orange or reddish with few or no bars.
  • The anal fins of males have 5-7 egg spots, while the females have only about 1-3 spots.

What is the Average Price of the Fish

Red Zebra Cichlid is a widely available fish for fish keeping and has been considered least vulnerable for extinction by IUCN Red List.

Their glamorous appearance makes them a suitable choice for decorative aquariums. They can be purchased at an affordable price between $3 to $7.

Fish Care

Quick Care Points
Care Level Elementary
Social Unfriendly
Temperament Slightly aggressive
Diet Omnivore
Breeding Simple

What do They Like to eat?

Red zebra cichlid seems to be an herbivore species, but it is actually an omnivore as it also consumes meaty food like worms or shrimps.

They mostly stay near the rocky region where aufwuchs or stringy algae are readily available. Sometimes other organisms like snails and mites are also found under these, which are eaten by the cichlid.

According to experts, fish keepers must provide ample mineral-rich food to enhance their body colors. But you must not overfeed them because it leads them to gain weight or causes fatal diseases.

So, instead of offering them large quantities, you should feed them multiple times a day in small proportions, which they can eat in 4-5 minutes. The most suitable foods for them are listed below-

  • Vegetables
  • Spirulina
  • Algae
  • Flakes
  • Pellets
  • Cyclops
  • Benthic invertebrates
  • Zooplankton
  • Snail
  • Mites
  • Mysis
  • Brine Shrimp
  • Insect larvae
  • Nymphs

Their Social Behavior & Temperament

Like other cichlid species, the red zebra cichlid is also considered slightly hostile or intrusive in nature. For a healthy environment, one male and two females should be kept together to keep the aggression in check.

They prefer to live in groups of 3-4, while an overpopulated space surely spurs their aggression level. These species usually display territorial behavior towards smaller aquatics to put them away.

These are bottom dwellers and are usually active during the day time swimming at a slow speed. They spend almost 10-12 hours sleeping inside rock caves or artificial fish tank setups.

How to Breed Them in Fish Tanks

Not much effort or expense is required to make the red zebra cichlid breed in captivity. They easily mate with potential partners to spawn and fertilize eggs.

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Make sure to follow the instructions step by step for preparing an easy and safe reproduction in the tank.

Fact: These species reach maturity early and grow up to three inches in length when ready to reproduce.

Initial Setup Requirements

Set up a separate tank for breeding, and get one male fish with two or three females for successful breeding. Keep the bottom surface plain without substrate, or keep a plain board where the females can spawn.

Note: Prefer to put only peaceful fish in the breeding tank, because female red zebra cichlids avoid spawning in a stressful environment. If you do not see the fish laying eggs for a long time then there is probably an aggressive mate which you need to remove immediately.

Mating and Fertilization

As the pair meets each other, the female fish lays about 25-30 eggs and consumes them in its mouth. Now they watch the egg spots on the anal fins of the males and try to hold them.

This activity provokes the males to spurt sperms or the milt cloud, and then inhaled by the females. The eggs get fertilized in the mouth of the female after inhalation of milt.

Hatching of Eggs

A pregnant red zebra cichlid keeps the eggs in its mouth and thus is also called a mouthbrooder. They fertilize and hatch the eggs inside their mouth by maintaining a temperature of 82F.

It takes about 2-3 weeks for the fry to come out of the eggs. When the fry(s) start swimming, you can feed them with powdered food particles or brine shrimp nauplii.

Color Morphs in New Born

There are few types of red zebra cichlid which produce color mutation-

  • Red-red Strain: Males in this strain are orange or red without any dark lines, and as they grow up to 2.5 inches, the blue shade starts appearing.
  • Red-blue Strain: Males are born dark brown and later light blue color with few vertical lines appearing on the body along with egg spots. Females are generally pale pink.
  • Albino Strain: It is a rare type usually found in captive breeding.

Common Health Issues Faced by Them

These are robust fish with high survival abilities and therefore do not easily catch diseases. But it is essential to provide them proper care to avoid unnecessary health troubles.

It is advised to offer them more herbivorous food than meat which carries a lot of protein and fat. It can cause Malawi bloat disease, which is incurable and often leads to death.

Refer to “Common Diseases in Aquarium Fish” for further information about common freshwater diseases like ich, flukes, parasitic infestations, etc., along with proper treatment guidelines.

Tank Care & Regulation

Capacity 210 Litres
Water Temperature 73 to 82 F
Water Hardness 6 to 10 dGH
Tank Lighting Moderate
Water pH Level 7.7 to 8.6
Substrate Any
Brackish Sometimes
Red Zebra Cichlid Tank Size and Care

What is the Minimum Tank Size Required

Red zebra cichlids are small fish, but they like to swim all day in search of food. They love to investigate new destinations and claim territory.

Thus, you should provide them sufficient space in the fish tank. As a single fish, you can put them in medium to small tanks.

But since it is advised to keep these fish in a group of 3-4, you should get an aquarium of about 55 gallons and 50 inches in length.

The tank size needs to be increased if there are more species of mbuna community.

Tank Setup

These fish have semi-aggressive tendencies and need to be tackled intelligently to keep a peaceful and thriving environment. Here are some suggestions you can follow to create a perfect setup red zebra cichlid tank.

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These species are not very comfortable with hindrances in their path, but that does not mean they hate plants in the water.

So, you can have some deep-rooted plants in the aquarium, and make sure not to congest the place with plants that have long branches. Few java ferns around the substrate are also suitable.


Red zebra cichlid does not require too much lighting in the tank. A regular LED light system will be sufficient to light up the place.


They naturally dwell around the rocky space inside the water. Therefore, the most preferable substrate for them would be hard rocks and pebbles.

They can be placed directly on the tank surface close to the wall edges, but keep them in a few numbers and in a manner to create caves or hideouts.

Gravel or small pebbles would also suit them as they like to spit them from mouths to create boundaries. You can also put crushed corals or soft sand as a substrate.


These are always essential items for freshwater fish. It keeps the aquarium clean and protects the fish from bacterial infections.

A medium standard canister filter will be sufficient for a 55 gallons tank. It will keep the water clean and oxygenated with a normal flow rate.


Keeping a few décor items like artificial trees or PVC pipes will keep the fish engaged. The red zebra cichlid likes to push and pull these items or rearrange them to a different location.

Water Parameters

These are tropical species, specifically found in the tropical region. To keep the fish healthy and happy you must keep the water conditions similar to Lake Malawi, which is slightly warm and alkaline.

Also, make sure to adjust the salt content or brackish water conditions in the tank. You must follow the water parameters as given below.

  • Keep the water temperature to a medium level between 22.8 – 27.8 degrees Celsius.
  • Slight alkalinity in the water keeps them comfortable, which should range between 7.7 – 8.6 pH.
  • They can adjust well in a tank with less than 10% of salt or specific gravity of 1.0002.
  • You must change 30% of tank water weekly while cleaning the rocks and other items at least once a month.

Fact: Crushed corals or aragonite sand as substrate gently dissolves in the water to increase the pH levels.

Can They Live in a Community Tank

Red zebra cichlid is usually not considered a community fish. They tend to show aggressive territorial behavior to any other species, which it can complete considering the size and nature of both.

The fundamental rule of keeping them in an aquarium is providing enough room or space. They are mostly kept with other cichlids if they both tend to show tolerance.

But it is always advised to avoid similar-colored males and large or same-sized aggressive fish with them. Here are a few compatible tank mates that can adjust with red zebra cichlids.

  • Cichlids: bumblebee, aurora, hongi, and other zebra cichlids
  • Yellow lab
  • Squeaker: featherfin, clown
  • Cuckoo catfish
  • Bristlenose pleco

Frequently Asked Questions

Do they have three scientific names?

The current scientific name of the red zebra cichlid is Maylandia Estherae. However, it was originally named as Pseudotropheus Estherae in 1922.

The new name was given Metriaclima Estherae, but due to some protocol issue, it was reverted to Maylandia, which was suggested in 1984.

Do they have teeth and spines?

Like many other cichlids, they also develop pharyngeal teeth along the regular teeth. Likewise, they also have spines that grow from the edges of the fins and help them swim fast and hide away from predators.

Should You Get Them Home

Red zebra cichlids are affordable pets as they are widely available worldwide in pet stores and can quickly adapt to the changed environment.

Since they do not require much care from the keepers other than feeding, even beginners can start with them as their hobby to keep aquarium fish.

It is a fabulous décor fish and the only condition to fulfill initially is to buy a minimum of 3-4 fish to make them feel stress-free and homely.

Related fish profiles:-

Maingano Cichlid Care Guide

About the Author

Victoria Lamb

Victoria is a freshwater aquatics specialist, fish keeper, and amphibian enthusiast. She has had more than 6 years of experience caring for aquariums and keeping several fish species, and her home boasts of 3 aquariums and a garden pond. Her goal is to educate fish owners on raising healthy and happy aquatic pets.

Career Highlights:

  • Has worked with several aquarium manufacturers as a consultant
  • Organized and hosted workshops on freshwater fish keeping at retail stores, educational facilities, and libraries
  • Released content for the amphibian community through her writings

Educational Highlights:

Bachelor of Science in Animal Behavior and Welfare

  • University of Lincoln, Lincoln, UK (2014-2018)

Writing Experience

Victoria has done ghostwriting for many aquarium and pet websites in the past. She has also worked for Canada's largest natural health magazine- ALIVE, with 300,000 monthly circulations as a freelancer. She had six published articles on animal behavior and welfare during her graduation for her thesis.

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