Tim's Tropical Fish






Zebra Cichlid

Malawi Cichlids

Blue Zebra Cichlid, Metriaclima estherae
Blue Zebra

The Zebra Cichlid originated in deep rocky waters of Lake Malawi in Africa.  It is also known as the Red Mbuna, the Cherry Zebra, the Pearl Zebra, the Cobalt Blue Zebra, the Red or Orange Blotch Zebra (OB).  The word “Mbuna” means “rock fish”, which refers to its habitat.  It is sometimes referred to by the scientific name Pseudotropheus Zebra, but subsequently has transitioned through the name Maylandia to end up being called Metriclima.  The authority on Metriaclima estherae is Ad Konings and the name estherae refers his friend Stuart Grant's wife, Esther.

The zebra originally had stripes similar to the unrelated Convict Cichlid and the dark banding is faintly apparent on some specimens .  There is much confusion surrounding the Cobalt Blue Zebra.  In the pictures above we show a variation which has faint vertical banding, while a solid blue specimen is more likely to be Metriaclima callainos.

Red or Cherry Zebra Cichlid, Metriaclima estherae
Red or Cherry Zebra

There are eggs spots on the anal fin, which become important during breeding.  Information on the sexing of Metriaclima estherae shows a variety of opinon.  Most frequently, references indicate that the males are blue, while the females are orange or orange blotch.  Some sources indicate the color variation is apparent already in the fry.  A large number of egg spots is considered an indication of a male.  There is an abundance of confusion on the topic though, so feel free to email in your opinions.

Female OB Zebra with two month old OB fry
Female OB & Fry

Clean water and proper pH are important in maintaining an mbuna tank.  Although some recommend using underground filters, external filters and bio-wheels  simultaneously to maintain quality, my experience is that underground filters are not suitable for mbunas.  They build nests by picking up rocks in their mouth and moving them, so underground filters are quickly exposed in an mbuna tank.  Mbunas are very territorial, aggressive fish, even more so than Haplochromis Cichlids like the Electric Blue Ahli, so they should only be kept with other mbunas,  A grouping including more than 10 mbunas is recommended as this will spread out aggressive behavior.  The tank should be 75 – 100 gallons and should have rocks and hiding spaces to provide escape from aggression of other tankmates.  Some gravel should be present, as mbunas keep very busy rearranging it.  They enjoy plants, but will destroy them.  We've had some success keeping Brazilian Ivy floating in their tanks.  Plastic plants floating at the surface can provide areas of safety for females and smaller males.  Zebras will eat flake foods, spirulina flakes and cichlid pellets.  They also enjoy romaine or other lettuce products.  They should not be fed live worms, as these can bloat and kill the fish.

Ice Blue Zebra, Metriaclima estherae
Ice Blue Zebra

Zebra cichlids are extremely aggressive to their own and other species.  The dominant male will continually keep harassing and  killing off the weakest members of the tank.  For this reason, a male Zebra Cichlid should be kept with several females in a very large tank.  The Zebra is a mouth brooder and the spawning process is intriguing.  The male will establish a territory and its colors will become enhanced when it is ready to breed.  A female that is ready to spawn will then enter the territory and the two will interact aggressively.  They may even lock jaws.  The female then releases a couple of eggs into a gravel pit.  She picks these up in her mouth.  Meanwhile the male displays the “egg spots” on his anal fin.  These spots are the same size and color as the real eggs.  The female nips at these eggs spots and the male releases his sperm, which then reaches the females mouth and fertilizes the real eggs that she has previously picked up.  The process is then repeated until the female has a brood of between 10 and 50 eggs in her mouth.

Female Red or Orange Blocth Zebra Cichlid and OB Zebra Fry, Metriaclima estherae
OB Zebra & Fry

Although you may not see the spawning activity, the swollen cheeks of the female, her disinterest in food and her desire for isolation are all indications that she has bred.  It's a good idea to remove her to a separate tank at this point.  The female keeps the eggs in her mouth for more than a week until they hatch. She will not eat during this time.  After hatching, the female may occasionally scoop them into her mouth for protection, but generally the fry hide from their parent.  The female will eventually show a healthy interest in feeding again and can be returned to the main tank, however care must be taken to watch the dynamics with other zebras.  A female who has previously been living for years in a tank with other Zebras can be killed by them in a matter of hours after returning to the tank.  The other Zebras have no recall of her former status in the tank and will attack her as a newcomer.  The female can stay in the breeding tank with the young.  At two months the fry will compete with their mother for food.  She will drive them off with actions that appear as if she is eating them, but this is simply a warning that she has priority over them for food at this stage.

Red or Orange Blocth Zebra Cichlid, Metriaclima estherae
Orange Blotch (OB) Zebra
Scientific Name: Metriaclima estherae
Family: Cichlid
Temperature: 22 - 28 C; 72 - 83 F
pH: 7.5 - 8.5
Size: 10 cm; 4 inches
Life Span: 10 years
Breeding: Normal, Egg Layer, Mouthbrooder


Mbuna Cichlids such as the Auratus, Cobalt Blue, Johanni, Lemon Yellow, Pindani, Tropheops, and Kenyi.  Also synodontis catfish.  Too aggressive for Haplochromis and Peacock Cichlids.

Other fairly aggressive unrelated species such as New World cichlids and barbs, may be ignored.