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L46 Zebra Pleco Guide: All About This Super Expensive Aquarium Fish

The Zebra Pleco is the crown jewel of many a pleco keeper’s collection. Believe it or not, there’s quite a bit more to the world of loricariid (suckermouth) catfish than the common pleco. You may already be familiar with the bristlenose pleco, the clown pleco, and the dwarf otocinclus. But the Zebra Pleco is entirely different in both appearance and care.

Hypancistrus zebra plecostomus
Peaceinpianos, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

What is the L46 Zebra Pleco?

Zebra Plecos truly live up to their name, with bright, bold black and white stripes that can catch your eye from the opposite side of an aquarium store. They also have bulbous, high set black eyes that give them a watchful puppy aspect. When in optimal health these fish also take on a faint blue sheen that’s strongest around their eyes and dorsal fin area.

It’s a testament to the diversity of plecos out there, some of which have colors comparable to those of reef fish! However Zebra Plecos are also much more challenging to both find and keep.

Zebra Plecos are native to the Xingu River, a tributary of the Amazon River. And they are only found in the Big Bend region of that river, which is currently under threat due to the construction of the Belo Monte Dam.

Zebra Plecos were already rare and have unfortunately been classified as an endangered species and thus barred from export by the Brazilian government. The dam’s environmental impact may even result in the extinction of this unique pleco. Fortunately, captive bred specimens can still be found if you look hard enough!

The L-number designation is another way to find information on them. These numbers were used back in the days when new pleco species were being discovered by the dozens on a yearly basis in the Amazon region.

Since it can take months to years to formally describe any given fish, ichthyologists started designating them with L-numbers as a way to quickly refer to a particular undescribed fish. But many of these numbers stuck, so you’ll often see the Zebra referred to as the L46 Pleco or even the L46 Zebra since there is also an L129 Colombian Zebra Pleco (Hypancistrus debilittera)!

Now that you know a little about the L46 Zebra Pleco and why it’s such a popular fish, let’s talk more about caring for these rare little gems!

  • Common Names: Zebra Pleco, L46 Pleco, Imperial Pleco
  • Scientific Name: Hypancistrus zebra
  • Origin: Big Bend region of the Xingu River, Brazil
  • Length: 3 to 4 inches
  • Aquarium Size: 20-30 Gallons
  • Temperament: Peaceful; Territorial
  • Ease of Care: Difficult

Caring for the L46 Zebra Pleco

Given their demanding water quality requirements and lack of interest in algae and other standard pleco foods, L46 Zebra Plecos are truly an expert level fish! Should you decide to take on the challenge, they can offer years of pleasure as they can live for over a decade. There is also the possibility of breeding them, helping conservation efforts until they can be reintroduced into the wild!

Aquarium Size

L46 Zebra Plecos are on the smaller side for plecos! While common plecos can reach nearly 2 feet long at maturity Zebras are fully grown at 3 to 4 inches! That said, we need to provide them with more swimming space than expected because they are sensitive to the poor water conditions that can easily develop in smaller aquariums. They are active fish at night and need room to explore and swim against the currents they require.

20 gallons is an absolute minimum, with 30 gallons being even better. A small group of Zebra Plecos is ideal; while the males are somewhat territorial they are semi-social fish. And since breeding them is especially important for conservation purposes we definitely want a small group to raise together!

Water Conditions

Providing the right water conditions for Zebra Plecos is the first of two major hurdles in keeping them healthy (the other is the right food; see below). Zebra Plecos come from the swift moving portions of a clearwater, fast moving river. Therefore, they need clean, flowing, highly oxygenated water.

Temperatures should fall between 76-82°F, with an elevated range of 82-86°F for when you want to breed these fish. Water chemistry should be neutral to slightly acidic (pH 6.0-7.0). But you don’t need to provide them with highly acidic, blackwater conditions since most plant matter gets washed away rather than decaying and contributing to a lower pH.

Ammonia, nitrite, and nitrates should all be at or close to 0 ppm as Zebra Plecos are quite sensitive to all of these pollutants. They are also mostly carnivorous, meaning they produce quite a bit of ammonia. You should only ever add Zebra Plecos to fully mature aquariums with optimal biological filtration capacity.

The general and carbonate hardness should all be low as well but these values are less important than the temperatures and pH. They can do well in slightly alkaline conditions (up to pH 7.5), especially captive bred specimens. But they are much less likely to breed unless you keep the pH on the lower end.

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As I said before, strong water flow is especially important for Zebra Plecos. Moderate to high water currents simulating the conditions of river rapids can be provided by using an aquarium powerhead. It’s especially important to choose a powerhead with an air intake since it can suck in air when powered on, oxygenating the water further for your plecos.

You may need to reduce, redirect or turn off the powerhead when feeding, depending on your aquarium layout and the strength of the current. Otherwise, food can get blown all over the tank. And since Zebra Plecos are bottom feeders and too shy to compete with other fish for food, they will have a hard time eating well.

Plants and Substrate

You will want to take special care when aquascaping a tank for L46 Zebra Plecos because they are rather shy and retiring fish. Add plenty of rockwork, driftwood, and live plants to cultivate a sense of security. Paradoxically, adding tons of hiding spaces ensures you’ll see your plecos more often out in the open! It’s when there’s nowhere to hide that fish tend to be extremely shy; they feel; constantly exposed as a result.

Zebra Plecos are also mostly nocturnal, so you may still find yourself frustrated by their lack of appearances. But once they realize that food appears during the day they will adjust their schedules accordingly.

When aquascaping you should use the layout, especially rocks and driftwood, to adjust how the strong currents they need flows around the aquascape. You can place decorations close to the outflow of the powerhead, giving them the chance to sit right near the water richest in oxygen. And you can also use the decorations to provide still water zones for them and for any tank mates that don’t appreciate high water flow.

But when it comes to the substrate, you can use either sand or gravel; Zebra Plecos have no preferences one way or the other! Darker substrates are what I usually recommend for most fish in order to bring out their colors. But the contrasting black and white tones these fish have means their colors are more dependent on their mood than anything else!

Feeding L46 Zebra Plecos

Feeding Zebra Plecos is one of the main challenges to keeping these magnificent fish. People used to common plecos and their relatives often start trying to offer them algae and other plant matter. While Zebra Plecos do consume small amounts of these foods they are actually omnivorous, with a strong bias towards the carnivorous side.

When you see your Zebra Pleco attached to the side of the aquarium glass, take note of its teeth. Notice how much more pointy many of them are compared to the flat plates of a common pleco. In the wild, Zebra Plecos eat quite a few invertebrates, including small worms, shrimp, and insect larvae.

This means we need to focus on a more protein-rich diet for these fish. Tubifex worms, blood worms, brine shrimp, and other live and frozen invertebrates make an excellent base. We can also use protein-rich pellets and flakes; and by protein rich, I mean prepared foods with animal protein listed as the major ingredients.

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Stay away from brands that use plant based starch as a filler because it won’t give Zebra Plecos the nutrition they need. You can also offer them chunks of seafood, like fresh fish, mussels in the shell, and shrimp! Just be mindful of how these products affect your water quality because they tend to decay quickly, producing a lot of ammonia!

Since Zebra Plecos are true omnivores they do need some vegetable matter in their diet as well; it just can’t be the mainstay. Blanched vegetables like zucchini and lettuce are appreciated, as are lightly boiled peas, crushed and with the skins removed. You can also offer them algae wafers on occasion! Unlike some other types of plecos, L46 Zebras don’t eat driftwood or appreciable amounts of biofilm.

Tank Mates for L46 Zebra Plecos

These shy little carnivores get along well with the majority of freshwater community fish in the hobby! So long as they prefer soft, slightly acidic water conditions and moderate to high flow, that is. Acidic water can be slightly stressful for some livebearers. Guppies and Endler’s livebearers do well but platies, mollies, and swordtails prefer more alkaline water.

Other soft water community fish include most tetras, smaller barbs, danios, and dwarf cichlids like blue rams and Apistogramma sp. Dwarf gouramis and bettas do prefer these conditions but struggle in moderate to high flow aquariums with nowhere to relax.

Be careful when keeping them with other bottom dwellers because Zebra Plecos can get defensive when other fish start poking around their caves. Corydoras are a great choice because they are social and open water swimmers that don’t feel the need to hide, and therefore won’t compete with the plecos for living space. But other kinds of plecos are best avoided.

Lastly, invertebrates should be avoided since they are a natural food source for Zebra Plecos. Dwarf shrimp are often pounced on in the middle of the night. Even snails are in danger of being munched on.

Good Tank Mates for Zebra Plecos:

  • Guppies, Tetras, smaller Barbs, Danios, Dwarf Cichlids, and other Community Fish that enjoy flowing water
  • Corydoras and other peaceful; outgoing bottom dwellers
  • Other Zebra Plecos

Poor Tank Mates for Zebra Plecos:

  • Alkaline-loving fish like Livebearers and African Cichlids
  • Gouramis, Bettas, and other fish that prefer still water
  • Aggressive and Territorial fish
  • Other Types of Plecos
  • Shrimp, Snails, and other Invertebrates

Breeding L46 Zebra Plecos

Assuming you’ve mastered the basics of Zebra Pleco care, breeding them offers a unique challenge!

Sexing Zebra Plecos

Zebra Plecos have subtle sexual differences that are hard to pick out but it can be done once they are fully mature. Male Zebra Plecos have visible odontodes (hair-like spines) on their pectoral fins as well as a set of bristles on their gill covers. These gill spines are often used in duels with their rivals as well as a defense against predators. Incidentally, be very careful when using a net on a Zebra Pleco; their bodies are covered in spines of all sizes, which can lead to them getting tangled up.

Female Zebra Plecos have a less pointed head, much smaller bristles on their gill covers, and less spiny pectoral fins. And when conditioned to spawn, they have a belly that swells visibly. Their belly may also take on a light orange or yellow hue due to the color of their large eggs.

Conditioning Zebra Plecos to Spawn

In order to condition your Zebra Plecos to spawn, you’ll need to provide the water conditions I’ve detailed above. Assuming they are well fed and kept in an oxygen rich, clean environment, you should start by simulating the spring rainy season. A large, 30% water change, topped off with soft RO (reverse osmosis) or distilled water, signals the heavy influx of rainwater that starts the season.

Letting the tank cool to 78°F, followed by an increase to 84-86°F also helps condition their internal clocks. Assuming you’re providing a steady source of diverse plant and animal-based foods, the male(s) will start claiming caves for themselves and the females will start to ripen.

As cavity spawners, you can use small clay pots, bamboo tubes, and other cozy caves for the male plecos. Once he chooses one, he’ll camp out right in front until a female chooses him. They then embrace within the cave and the female leaves after the eggs are fertilized.

The male Zebra Pleco then stands guard over the 7 to 15 bright orange eggs for about a week. The young then hatch but take a further 3 days for the yolk sack to be fully absorbed. Once they’ve done so, the young depart and start foraging for small, protein rich foods. You can offer them freeze dried and fresh foods like brine shrimp nauplii and protein-rich flakes and pellets!

Jason Roberts
About Jason Roberts
Jason is an aquarium fanatic that has been a fish hobbyist for almost three decades.

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