The Red Zebra Maylandia estherae (previously Pseudotropheus estherae) is a very beautiful and desirable cichlid. The coloring of both the male and the female is very appealing, almost looking like two separate species. In the wild adult males are light blue, while females can range between a brownish beige to an orange-red and lack the broad vertical barring. These are also one of only a handful of Mbuna species that produce blotched color mutations.

This is a zebra-type cichlid that belongs to a group called Mbunas. There are 13 genera full of very active and aggressive personalities of Mbuna cichlids. The name Mbuna comes from the Tonga people of Malawi and means “rockfish” or “rock-dwelling”. This name aptly describes the environment these fish live in as opposed to being open water swimmers like the Utaka cichlids and other “haps”.

This cichlid has a history of ups and downs in both identity and popularity. It was originally considered to be a variety of the Zebra Cichlid Pseudotropheus zebra. It was known as the Orange Blue Mouth Breeder and described as Pseudotropheus spec. aff. zebra. Finally it was described as its own species, Pseudotropheus estherae, by Konings in 1995. Recent revisions in the Pseudotropheus genus caused a new surge of identity crisis. All the Zebra-type cichlids were moved to their own genera and both Maylandia estherae and Metriaclima estherae were recognized for this cichlid. Now however, the Red Zebra is considered valid as Maylandia estherae and is also called Esther Grant’s Zebra.

When first introduced to the hobby this was a very popular Mbuna, and then it fell out of favor a bit. But today it has regained its status as one of the “most popular” African Cichlids. Most captive bred specimens available in the hobby were originally line bred for specific color traits in Florida fish farms. This resulted in orange males and a variety of other unusual color patterns.

There are many captive strains available. These include males of a “red-blue” strain that are a light blue with faint vertical barring. Males of a “red-red” strain can be a orange/red coloring with no vertical bars, and there is also an albino strain. Females can be yellow, orange, or orange with dark mottling. Common names are derived from their color patterns and popular varieties include the Cherry Red Zebra and the more recently developed Super Red Zebra.

This is a great fish for both the intermediate and experienced cichlid keeper. It is only a moderately aggressive cichlid compared to other Mbuna, but is still not a community tank specimen, It cannot be kept with fish other than cichlids. This species easily adapts to prepared foods, is very easy to breed, and the juveniles are very easy to raise as well.

For the aquarists who is willing to do frequent water changes and provide appropriate tank mates, the Red Zebra is easy to care for.  But a decor of rockwork that offers lots of nooks and crannies for hiding places is needed for success. To house one male and two to three females, a minimum sized 55 gallon tank with a length of 48″ is suggested. A much larger tank will be needed to keep a  tank of mixed Mbuna.

Scientific Classification


Red Zebra – Quick Aquarium Care

Aquarist Experience Level:Intermediate
Aquarium Hardiness:Moderately hardy
Minimum Tank Size:55 gal (208 L)
Size of fish – inches3.9 inches (10.01 cm)
Temperature:73.0 to 82.0° F (22.8 to 27.8&deg C)

Habitat: Distribution / Background

The Red Zebra Maylandia estherae (previously Pseudotropheus estherae) was described by Konings in 1995. They are endemic to the rocky shorelines of Lake Malawi, Africa. They are found in five locations including Minos reef, Chilucha reef, Metangula, Nkhungu, and Masinje. Most are collected near the Minos Reef, but some are also collected near Meluluca, Mozambique.

This species is listed on the IUCN Red List as Vulnerable (VU). Although it is endemic to Lake Malawi it has a very restricted range, found in only five locations, there are no major recognized threats at present. Other common names this fish is known by are Orange Zebra Cichlid, Esther Grant’s Zebra, Orange-blue Mouth Breeder, Metriaclima estherae and Pseudotropheus estherae (both are invalid scientific names but still being used in the hobby), and of course Mbuna. Common names are derived from their color patterns include the Cherry Red Zebra and the more recently developed Super Red Zebra.

Like other Mbuna, they are commonly found near sediment free rocky areas where they feed on aufwuchs. Aufwuchs refers to tough stringy algae that is attached to rocks. “Loose” aufwuchs can contain insect larvae, nymphs, crustaceans, snails, mites and zooplankton.

“What’s the deal with the 3 scientific names?”

The question brings up a baffling problem that the scientific community has been working to resolve. Today Maylandia estherae is recognized as the valid name for the Red Zebra, but both of the names Metriaclima estherae and Pseudotropheus estherae are used in some circles.

Here’s a quick overview of its nomenclature history:

  • When first discovered the original name for the Red Zebra was Pseudotropheus estherae. The Pseudotropheus genus (Regan 1922), contained a subgroup group of closely related fish described as the ‘Zebras’.
  • In 1984 to put this group of ‘Zebras’ in their own genus, a new name came forth, Maylandia. This genus name was derived from the name of a well known ichthyologist, Hans Mayland. But there is a problem with this name because it was said to not conform with the ‘rules of the Code’ for scientific description. So the genus name was pronounced a nomen nudum and therefore invalid. However this was an ongoing debate.
  • Then in 1997 the name Metriaclima was put forth as a correct descriptive genus name. However this too had problems. The protocol for a name change was not followed. There is an “official” channel that has to be gone through to contest and change a scientific name. So though Metriaclima is a descriptive genus name, if there is any “disagreement”, the rules are that the name reverts back to the original name.
  • Today the latest resolve is that Maylandia is the recognized “valid” genus name of the Red Zebra.
  • Scientific Name: Maylandia estherae
  • Social Grouping: Groups – Males may be solitary defending a territory while females, juveniles, and non-breeding males may be alone or in small groups.
  • IUCN Red List: VU – Vulnerable


The Red Zebra has the typical muscular Mbuna form and though their bodies are stockier than the other ‘zebras’, they have a torpedo shape. In nature they will reach up to almost 4 inched (10 cm) in length. They are sometimes larger in the home aquarium with males reaching up to to almost 5 inches (12.5 cm). They can live up to around 10 years with proper care.

The coloration is completely different between males and females. In the wild adult males are light blue with dark vertical bands, and have 4-7 egg spots on the anal fin. Females can range between a brownish beige to an orange-re, they lack the broad vertical barring and can have from none up to three egg spots on the anal fin. These are also one of only a handful of Mbuna species that produce blotched color mutations. In the hobby there are several color morphs available for both males and females.

Male color morphs:

  • “red-blue” strain
    The males of the “red-blue” strain are a light blue with faint vertical bars and 4 – 7 egg spots on the anal fin.The “red-blue” strain juveniles are the easiest to tell apart, with males being born dark brown and females a pale pink.
  • “red-red” strain
    Males of the “red-red” strain can also be an orange/red coloring with no vertical bars. In the “red-red” strain, the juveniles are born similar in color the females, then at 2.5 inches, the male will have a light blue shade start to appear throughout his body and fins.
  • “albino” strain
    There is an “albino” strain, but in the wild it is very rare.

Female color morphs:

  • The females can be yellow, orange, or orange with dark mottling. They may have 0 – 3 egg spots on the anal fin that can be seen in both strains.

All cichlids share a common feature that some saltwater fish such as wrasses and parrotfish have and that is a well-developed pharyngeal set of teeth that are in the throat, along with their regular teeth. Cichlids have spiny rays in the back parts of the anal, dorsal, pectoral, and pelvic fins to help discourage predators. The front part of these fins are soft and perfect for precise positions and effortless movements in the water as opposed to fast swimming.

Cichlids have one nostril on each side while other fish have 2 sets. To sense “smells” in the water, they suck water in and expel the water right back out after being “sampled” for a short or longer time, depending on how much the cichlid needs to “smell” the water. This feature is shared by saltwater damselfish and cichlids are thought to be closely related.

  • Size of fish – inches: 3.9 inches (10.01 cm) – They attain a length of almost 4″ (10 cm) in the wild, but can reach almost 5″ (12.5 cm) in the aquarium.
  • Lifespan: 10 years – They have a lifespan of about 10 years with proper care.

Fish Keeping Difficulty

This is a great fish for both the intermediate and experienced cichlid keeper. It is a moderately aggressive cichlid, but not a community tank specimen that can be kept with fish other than cichlids. The aquarists must be willing to do frequent water changes and provide appropriate tank mates. It is susceptible to Malawi bloat as well as the typical diseases that effect all freshwater fish if the tank is not maintained. In the proper setup it will easily adapt to prepared foods, breed readily, and the juveniles are easy to raise as well.

  • Aquarium Hardiness: Moderately hardy
  • Aquarist Experience Level: Intermediate

Foods and Feeding

The Red Zebra is an omnivore that in the wild feeds on auwfuchs containing a variety of tiny benthic invertebrates and zooplankton. In the aquarium they need mainly herbivorous foods because even though they eat a little protein in the wild, the majority of their diet is vegetable matter. They will accept anything, but to keep their colors strong, feed New Life Spectrum, Cyclops, Spirulina, or any other high quality herbivorous cichlid flake or small pellet. Mysis and brine shrimp occasionally is okay.

They will easily become overweight, so be careful to not over feed. The algae growing in the tank is something they eat, so supplementing that natural food is less costly than for a carnivorous cichlid. It is always better to feed them small amounts several times a day instead of one large feeding. This keeps the water quality higher for a longer period of time. Of course, all fish benefit from added vitamins and supplements to their foods. Too much protein and fat leads to Malawi Bloat, which is fatal.

  • Diet Type: Omnivore
  • Flake Food: Yes
  • Tablet / Pellet: Yes
  • Live foods (fishes, shrimps, worms): Some of Diet
  • Vegetable Food: Most of Diet
  • Meaty Food: Some of Diet
  • Feeding Frequency: Daily – Offer several small feedings a day, what they can eat in about 3 minutes or less, rather than a single large feeding.

Aquarium Care

Malawi Cichlids will deteriorate under poor water conditions. As these are messy fish, do water changes of of 30% a week depending on bio load and vacuum the substrate every 2 weeks. It is also suggested to change the rock work around once a month if aggression is shown.

  • Water Changes: Weekly – Water changes of about 30% weekly are suggested, depending on the bio load.

Aquarium Setup

The streams that flow into Lake Malawi have a high mineral content. This along with evaporation has resulted in alkaline water that is highly mineralized. Lake Malawi is known for its clarity and stability as far as pH and other water chemistries. It is easy to see why it is important to watch tank parameters with all Lake Malawi fish.

Rift lake cichlids need hard alkaline water but are not found in brackish waters. Salt is sometimes used as a buffering agent to increase the water’s carbonate hardness. This cichlid has some salt tolerance so can be kept in slightly brackish water conditions. However it not suited to a full brackish water tank. It can tolerate a salinity that is about 10% of a normal saltwater tank, a specific gravity of less than 1.0002.

A 55 gallon tank with a minimum of 48″ (122 cm) in length is suggested, though a larger tank would be required if mixing Mbuna cichlids. They do fine in either freshwater or brackish freshwater but need good water movement along with very strong and efficient filtration.  A substrate of crushed coral or sand used for salt water tanks can help keep the pH up. Gravel is acceptable as well. Crushed coral or aragonite sands also tend to dissolves easier than salts. Keeping a higher pH however, means that ammonia is more lethal, so regular water changes are a must for these fish.

The Red Zebra needs a lot of rock work for shelter and territories. Some open space is appreciated as well. Provide lots of passageways and caves formed with piles of rocks. This will lessen aggression and give everyone a place to call their own. They like to dig so make sure the rocks sit on the bottom of the aquarium not on the substrate.

  • Minimum Tank Size: 55 gal (208 L) – A 55 gallons tank is suggested with a minimum length of 48″ (122 cm) is suggested, and a larger tank is needed for a mixed group of Mbunas.
  • Suitable for Nano Tank: No
  • Substrate Type: Any
  • Lighting Needs: Moderate – normal lighting
  • Temperature: 73.0 to 82.0° F (22.8 to 27.8&deg C)
  • Range ph: 7.7-8.6
  • Hardness Range: 6 – 10 dGH
  • Brackish: Sometimes – Salt is not found in their natural environment, but they do have a slight tolerance, keep levels below 10% – a specific gravity of less than 1.0002.
  • Water Movement: Moderate
  • Water Region: All – These fish will swim in all areas of the aquarium.

Social Behaviors

The Red Zebra is not considered to be a community fish. They are best kept in groups of one male and two or three females. If overstocking is used as a form of aggression reduction, care should be taken to do several partial water changes a week. They can be kept with other less aggressive Mbuna cichlids from Malawi that are not similar in coloring/shape

They are a little mellower than other Mbuna, and can be kept with some other cichlids that are not overly aggressive. Do not house with Haplochromis, as the Red Zebra, like other Mbunas, are too aggressive towards them. Do not put with other Mbuna of similar shape and size, as they will attack and/or interbreed, which is not suggested.

  • Temperament: Semi-aggressive
  • Compatible with:
    • Same species – conspecifics: Yes – They are best kept in groups of 1 male with 2 or 3 females. They will not tolerate any other male of their same species nor any similarly colored males of other species.
    • Peaceful fish (): Threat
    • Semi-Aggressive (): Safe
    • Aggressive (): Threat
    • Large Semi-Aggressive (): Threat
    • Large Aggressive, Predatory (): Threat
    • Threat
    • Shrimps, Crabs, Snails: Threat – is aggressive
    • Plants: Threat

Sexual differences

The male is light blue with dark vertical bands, or an orange-red without bands, both having 4-7 egg spots on the anal fin. Female is yellow, orange or similar with or without the dark mottling on the body and 0-3 egg spots.

Breeding / Reproduction

The Red Zebra has been bred in captivity. Sexual maturity is reached at 3 inches. Obtain 7 young fry if the color morph you want is not apparent at a young age.

Feed 2 times a day to condition them to breed. They like a flat tone or slate to lay the eggs in the male’s territory. If your Red Zebras will not spawn, then that usually means there is a very aggressive fish in the tank. Removing that aggressive fish will prompt a more relaxed atmosphere and encourage spawning.

The female will lay about 20 to 30 eggs then then immediately take them into their mouths before they are fertilized. The male flares out his anal fin, which has “egg spot patterning” so the female mistaken the eggs spots on the male’s anal fin as her own eggs and tries to take them in her mouth as well. In doing so, she then stimulates the male to discharge sperm (milt cloud) and inhales of cloud of “milt” which then fertilize the eggs in her mouth.

In 14 to 21 days at about 82 F, the eggs are developed. The released fry can eat finely powdered dry foods and brine shrimp nauplii. The female will guard her young. As long as you have plenty of hiding places, your young will have a easier time surviving until they are too big to eat.

The “red-blue” strained fry are born the same color as the female, and males start to develop a blue coloring over their body and fins at 2.5″. The “red-red” males are born dark brown with the females being pale pink. See the description of how cichlids breed in Breeding Freshwater Fish: Cichlids.

  • Ease of Breeding: Easy

Fish Diseases

Malawi bloat is a typical disease especially if their mostly herbivorous dietary needs are not met with quality foods. They are susceptible to typical fish ailments, especially if water is stale and of poor quality and oxygenation. One common problem is Ich. It can be treated with the elevation of the tank temperature to 86° F (30° C) for 3 days. If that does not cure the Ich, then the fish needs to be treated with copper (remove any water conditioners). Several copper based fish medications are available for Ich. Copper use must be kept within the proper levels, so be sure to follow the manufacturers suggestions. A copper test also can be used to keep the proper levels. You can also combine increasing the temperature with an Ich medication treatment.

As with most fish they are susceptible to skin flukes and other parasitic infestations (protozoa, worms, etc.), fungal infections, and bacterial infections. It is recommended to read up on the common tank diseases. Knowing the signs and catching and treating them early makes a huge difference. For information about freshwater fish diseases and illnesses, see Aquarium Fish Diseases and Treatments.


Red Zebras are sometimes found online and are moderately priced for juveniles. They are sometimes found in fish stores as well, and they may be special ordered if you are willing to wait for them if they are out of season. When acquiring a Red Zebra, especially since this was one of the first cichlids to be introduced into the hobby and has been extensively bred, there is no way to tell exactly what you are getting unless it is from a reputable dealer.



 Male Red Zebra Cichlid (Image Credit: Maha Dinesh, Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported)