Red zebra cichlids are one of the most common types of aquarium fish, although many people who own them don’t know it! Although there are over two thousand species of fish that can be called African cichlids, many pet stores sell red zebra cichlids with the very vague label “African cichlid,” which means very little in a world with so many African cichlids. To add to the confusion, most red zebra cichlids are solid orange and do not have stripes! Without you knowing what you’ve got and how to care for it, your fishy friend won’t live a very long or happy life. Make sure you’re doing things right.
You’ll need to understand just how much space a red zebra cichlid requires. Cichlids have a reputation for being aggressive, but they’re really not– just territorial. They need to have space that they can consider their own. Without it, they begin harassing their tank mates, often to the death. A red zebra cichlid will have an adult size of 4-5 inches, so make sure you understand that they will not stay small. You may be able to keep a young red zebra cichlid in a twenty or twenty-nine gallon tank if it has few or no tank mates that will compete for territory, but you’re much better off getting a tank of at least 55 gallons to meet these high-need fishes’ needs.
When setting up the tank, be sure to provide lots of rocks and caves. The red zebra cichlid is an mbuna fish, meaning that it dwells in small rocky caves in its natural home. You should have fine pebble or sandy substrate and plenty of hiding places and territorial landmarks throughout the tank. Live plants such as java moss and java fern are an excellent idea to improve your water quality, but aren’t as necessary as rocky caves for mbunas.
A heater and an excellent filter are must-haves for a tank with any mbuna cichlid, and the red zebra cichlid is no exception. Your tank will need a constant water temperature between 76 and 84 degrees. Although red zebra cichlids can tolerate neutral water, they prefer for their water to be very slightly alkaline. The soft, acidic water used for South American cichlids (such as angelfish and discus) is not a good fit for a red zebra cichlid.
Be careful when selecting tank mates. Ideally, red zebra cichlids should be kept in large tanks with others of their species, but with caution about gender balance. It’s best to have males with harems of at least 3 females, so a tank with three males and nine females would, for example, be fine. Tanks with too few males will often have bursts of violence and death. Most top-feeding fish do not compete for territory with red zebra cichlids, and almost all schooling fish are compatible with them. Avoid placing red zebra cichlids with other highly territorial middle-water or bottom-feeding fish.
After your cichlids have settled in, it should be smooth sailing from that point onward, but make sure you feed a balanced diet to prevent problems like malnutrition and bloat. A lightly supplemented diet composed mostly of commercial cichlid food is ideal. If you have questions, consultants at your local aquarium supply store should be able to help.
Liveaquaria and Aquarium Life provide further information on these intriguing and beautiful fish.