The Zebra plec: Learn your stripes!

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Most fishkeepers consider keeping Zebra plecs and many would like to breed them. But whatever your goal, you'll need to know to look after them, says Julian Dignall.


The only thing black and white about the Zebra plec is its beautiful markings. Pretty much everything else is subject to myth, opinion and misinformation.

This, as well as the beautifully contrasting stripes, do add to the somewhat legendary status the Zebra plec, Hypancistrus zebra,

has attained.

Depending on whom you speak to, the Zebra plec was discovered by anglers somewhere between the mid 1970s and 80s. It was given an L-number, L046, in 1989. The stripes of the Zebra have come to represent a new wave of catfish keepers, and it’s a flagship species for the now undeniable fishkeeping tribe that are L-number keepers and breeders.

Natural habitat

The Zebra plec is endemic to the middle of Brazil’s Rio Xingu (pronounced sheen goo) and is among the catfish species at risk from the Belo Monte dam.

It lives at a depth where the surroundings are, at best, pretty gloomy, if not completely dark. It lives in the cracks, gaps and natural caves found in the very specific type of rock found in the river.

This is dark brown to black hard igneous rock that, in shallower water, is set in tan-coloured sand. There is very little submerged wood, there are virtually no plants and the water belts through the area at a rate of knots. Many of these areas are rapids and the water is highly oxygenated.

Export restrictions

Exports of tropical fish from Brazil are governed and policed by the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA). IBAMA produces a so-called positive list of fish species and those are the ones that may be collected and exported into the global ornamental fish trade. Hypancistrus zebra has not yet appeared on it and is illegal to export from Brazil.

When you encounter one for sale it will either be captive-bred or will have been smuggled out of Brazil and exported, typically, from Colombia. They range from around £95-£150. This activity, as you may imagine, stirs some debate among fishkeepers. Even if such a wonderful species is at risk of extinction in the wild, does that make it acceptable to fund the smuggling of them into our shops? That’s to say, 'rescue' them before they are wiped out.

Thankfully, the Zebra plec’s future looks a bit brighter than many of its Xingu river cohorts. Because of its small size, relative ease of breeding and status, it is bred and traded in most countries that have a decent aquarium hobby.

In the aquarium

Keeping Hypancistrus zebra is straightforward, especially with captive-bred stock. When this species was first being bred in aquaria, arguments raged over how to best keep and breed it. Some polarised views were initially stated, but it turns out most folks were right, even if they had different points of view, because this species can live in a range of water conditions.

So, the hard water proponent was no more right or wrong than their softer water advocate. It has been bred in really quite hard water with no ill effects, though most spawns are in about pH 6.5-7 with moderate to no hardness.

I accept that breeding fish isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. It’s not a view I subscribe to personally, but I get the fact that people just want to look at their fish rather than reproduce them. However, in the case of the Zebra plec the majority do wish to breed them.

This may be for any mix of anticipated financial gain, fishkeeping kudos or the positive feeling gained from furthering the chances of this species’ ability to survive for future generations. So, let’s talk about how to keep them so that they breed and then, if you remain convinced you don’t want to breed them, you still have the intel on how best to keep them

Provide warm, oxygenated and clean water. Aim for a neutral pH, a water temperature of 86-88°F/30-31°C and have at least two power-driven filter outlets that mix in atmospheric air with the water flow. Clean water means both a decent power filter and at least 25% water changes.

Consider using plants and bogwood to replicate the natural habitat.

Feed them right

Feeding is more a matter of physics than biology. Zebras are not large plecs and you can keep a group in a relatively small tank. However, with all that filtration in play (see box above, right) food can get blasted around the tank and filtered away before the fish get to eat.

This is where some trial and error with aquascaping comes in. Play around with rocks so that there are some open areas of gravel where food collects. Even better would be near caves. If you can, do this in such a way as it’s easily accessible.

It may sound obvious, but be really careful moving rocks around with plecs in the tank. It is easy to trap or squash them, especially if you are stretching or off balance.

Aim for an aquarium that allows food to sink to quiet pockets away from the current, where the plecs can feed over a ten to 15 minute period once or twice a day. The choice of food is important. Flake or floating foods won’t do well in that kind of current, so sinking tablets made from flake or algae tabs will work, but Zebras need a lot of protein. I favour discus food, either frozen or granular. Select one that doesn’t expand a lot once placed in water. Many plecs will gorge on whatever food is available and something that expands to twice its size after being submerged for five minutes is remarkably lethal. This is especially true in plecs, as two thirds of their bodies are covered by rigid plates, so the only way the stomach can expand is downwards where there is only exposed skin.

Keep discus separate

The temptation to keep Zebras with discus is strong, as they share water requirements and similar diets. But the issue of water current can be overlooked. If you’ve got a filter that provides lots of dissolved oxygen (but without the kind of current that would scatter the discus around the tank), then this might work but it’s a bit hit or miss.

If you’ve a central system, then keeping Zebras in one tank and discus in another in the same system would work well, as you can add a pump/filter to the Zebra tank to create the extra current, but I’d suggest keeping these two fish apart in the main.

Choosing décor

I like to keep plecs in oversized tanks because it means I have a lot more flexibility when it comes to looking after their water. For example, I have a group of five Zebra plecs breeding in a tank that has a 91 x 46cm/36 x 18" footprint and is 38cm/15" high.

In this is 2mm bore gravel to a depth of about 1". I mix black and brown gravel to get a look that I like and it appears the Zebras are, at least, not objectionable to. The black and white fish look fantastic against what is not only attractive, but reasonably natural substrate. On top of this, I have lots of breeding cave pipes and then slate and lateritic holey rock.

Zebra plecs won’t breed unless caves are present. These are commercially available or you can make your own. As a rule of thumb, I put two caves in for every adult fish. This is seen by some as overkill: some authors have one cave. However, I note a lot of aggression over caves and the alpha male will always pick the one that suits him best. So, if there are others available, the fighting is toned down a bit and, like me, you might be lucky and get two pairs spawning. This is relatively unusual, and it’s more common for males to breed with more than one female, a few weeks apart, but in the same cave. Females will live near the male’s cave, and so I like to provide rock cover over the caves that are thus in shade.

The temptation is to have them in full view so you can monitor proceedings, but it’s more important to have the cave mouth perpendicular to the current and for all the adult fish in the tank to be able to come and go from their places of rest without too much aggro.

Get the décor wrong and adult male Hypancistrus can seriously injure and kill each other. However, many people buy captive-bred Zebra plecs and they tend to be a bit smaller and not yet mature. Thus, such aggression has yet to manifest itself and can be avoided altogether by adding refuges as the fish begin to mature.

Sexing your zebra plecs

In well-conditioned, mature fish, sexing is straightforward. Applying these observations to fish less than about 80mm SL or that have not been in captivity for long will give variable results.

1. Full-grown male Zebro plecs are about 10-15% larger and bulkier than females.

2. The male’s interopercular odontodes that have grown from the fish’s cheek under the eye are longer — more than two times the width of the eye.

3. The male’s leading pectoral fin spine has orange-tipped odontodal growth of a similar thickness, if not length, to the cheek spines.

4. Males have heavy-set heads.

5. When viewed from above, males have a straight line from the base of the pectoral fin spine to the caudal peduncle.

6. Flip them over and examine their pinky-white undersides: males have pointier bullet-shaped genital papillae.

7. Females are generally slighter.

8. While females develop cheek and pectoral fin spines with maturity, they are shorter and less noticeable than the males’.

9. Females have a convex, curved outline from the base of their pectoral fin spine to the caudal peduncle (broadest in the midriff where eggs will be developed).

10. Underneath, females have a much less defined, but broadened genital papillae.

Spawning success

Much debate surrounds spawning triggers. Some authors report that not cleaning the filter — therefore slowing the water current a little — along with skipping a water change or two followed by increased water changes triggers well-conditioned pairs to spawn. Many say they will start spawning when mature given good water conditions. Certainly once they do start they will continue for years.

Often the first batch of yellowish orange eggs will be infertile and not hatch. This commonly happens with many plec first timers. It’s just a sign to keep doing what you’ve been doing — within a month, they will try again, maybe sooner.

The male will normally guard the eggs in the cave and often the first an aquarist knows they’ve bred is on seeing some delightful mini Zebras scooting around the tank, typically under stones.

If disturbed or inexperienced, the male may displace the eggs out from the cave. In this situation, or where you want to micro manage the eggs hatching, then an in-tank nursery is required. This can be a net mesh box or a more sophisticated plastic box, but the important things are that it shares water from the parent tank and is easy to clean. Place an airstone close to the egg clutch to simulate the fanning of the male’s fins in the cave.

When they hatch, youngsters will have unfeasibly large yolk sacs. It is only when these are consumed that you should start feeding. Crush whatever you’re feeding the adults and consider sinking tablets too. They are not hard to feed and even at this small size will eat dry foods eagerly and regularly. For best results try to feed twice a day or more. Clean the nursery at least daily, it needs to sparkle.

However, I prefer the hands-on dad approach and Zebra plec dads do a great job of getting 20 or so youngsters out of the cave. At this size they will forage and eat with the adults. They’re slow growers and unless you pay them a lot of attention in terms of feeding, space and water quality, getting them to grow more than 1cm every 6-8 weeks will be a challenge.

Business sense

Zebra plecs are now bred in commercial numbers and these turn out beautiful clean fish in number. Also, shipments of wild-caught fish tend to have more males than females (it’s easier to collect males from the wild as they tend to be in a cave), but with captive-bred fish, it is more like parity. Because these are high-end fish, professional breeders know they must be kept in high quality surroundings to ensure they grow on well and fast.

Zebra plecs produce about 20 eggs and spawn every couple of months. These figures can be improved a little with ultra-attentive care but serve as a good indication. So, one pair could produce about 120 offspring a year. Let’s call that 100 once you take into account culling of inferior fish and the odd accidental loss for whatever reason. Now you need another year to bring them on. That’s running, say, eight tanks for two years before you start selling them. That can be done, but selling them in twos and threes to private buyers isn’t going to fund that Porsche anytime soon.

To make it a business, you’re going to need, say, 100 pairs and several hundred tanks — most of which you’ll be running for a year or two before any selling occurs. Bear in mind that a £100 retail fish might wholesale at about £40 and you don’t make any margin on shipping. Then factor in shipping disasters and so on. At some point in time, heat and food makes it more viable to attempt such an endeavour in a tropical country rather than in chilly old Blighty — unless you really scale up the operation or transport costs rocket.

This is the model being utilised by specialist commercial breeders and I think that given the beauty of the Zebra plec, will ultimately mean we continue to see this species offered for sale irrespective of what man-made catastrophe may, or may not, befall its wild cousins. This is also why I mention breeding this species for yourself. You can get to the stage where you and a group of friends have a decent population of these things and can trade with other groups. Isn’t that a good thing?

Given what I’ve said, perhaps seeking experience, cutting your teeth on less expensive Hypancistrus is a good starting point. If your ambition to keep

these wonderful black and white rock star plecs remains, you’ll be able to give it a worthwhile go and do it in a planned manner. Then you can dream of that first sight of baby Zebra plecs in your tank. That experience is a special thing.

Factfile

Scientific name: Hypancistrus zebra.

Pronunciation: Hype an siss truss.

Common name: Zebra plec.

Size: 80mm/3.1".

Lifespan: 15 years plus.

Spawning age: Around three years.

Water chemistry: 5.5-7.5 pH.

Temperature: 86-88°F/30-31°C.

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