Types of Plecos that Stay Small (with pictures)

Written by Randy Martin

Having a few smaller aquariums, I wondered what plecostomus stay small enough that I can keep. So I searched around to see what is available and if any of them would be compatible with a small tank.

What types of plecos stay small? 

  • Bristlenose Pleco
  • Rubber Lip Pleco
  • Clown Pleco
  • Pitbull Pleco
  • Queen Arabesque Pleco
  • Zebra Pleco

The minimum size recommended for most of these species is probably a 30 gallon tank. But some of them could realistically be kept in a little smaller than that. The main factor is plecos are messy and produce a lot of waste.

Plecos that stay small

Here is a quick list of the plecos you could consider for your smaller tanks. Keep in mind that many of the other plecos can grow very large. Like the common pleco for example, can grow up 2 feet long. A fish this size would need a tank well over 100 gallons.

When it comes to smaller plecos, some people refer to them as exotic plecos, and many of the species can be pretty expensive. Collecting rare, expensive plecos is a thing for many hobbyists.

There are some species that are cheaper and more common.

Bristlenose Pleco

Bristlenose pleco

This is probably the most common smaller pleco out there. They are relatively cheap and fun to keep in your tank. They are widely available so it will be easy to get a hold of them.

A fully mature bristlenose will grow to about 5 inches. They have a long life span, some have been known to live up to 20 years in home aquariums.

They are also very easy to breed. And like a lot of these bottom feeding catfish, they really go to work on your tank cleaning up the algae.

Another nice quality of the bristlenose is they get along with just about most tropical fish species in a community tank. You can keep them with most standard species and not expect any real issues with that.

Note: If you have 2 or more male bristlenoses together then you should provide a separate cave for each one so they don’t get territorial and aggressive.

Bristlenose plecos also love and deserve really good filtration. You should always consider running a canister filter on your setup if you can. If you don’t know what a canister is yet, you have to read my post here explaining the advantage of canister filters. If you are in the fish hobby, you should at least know they exist and are an option.

Rubber Lip Pleco

This is another great choice that can be found in a lot of the big pet chains. It isn’t pricey, and is comparable to the bristlenose in size. I think they look a little better than the bristlenose too.

And the rubber lip has been known to clean up an aquarium nicely. I have seen this species recommend a lot for a algae problems where just one of these completely took care of a 30 gallon tank.

Here you can see a rubber lip doing work on some black beard algae in a 10 gallon tank (youtube video)

Clown Pleco

Clown pleco

This dwarf pleco is one of the smallest plecostomus on this list. I believe they grow to only about 4 inches. They have a pretty neat striped look to them.

They are very peaceful and will do well in a smaller community tank, especially since they are quite small themselves. On that note though you don’t want to keep it in a tank with a much larger fish that could potentially eat it.

All the plecos on this list should be kept with driftwood in the aquarium but this is especially true with the clown pleco as its main source of food is driftwood.

Pitbull Pleco

These little guys are about as small as the plecos come, just at 3 inches. They seem to be rarer and harder to find, but they aren’t much more expensive in the pleco list if you can find them.

They prefer to swarm or school together, so it would be best if you could keep them in little groups together in your community tank, but you would need a 30 gallon or more in that case.

Keeping them in a tank with a sand substrate would be best, or a softer rounded gravel since they tend to borrow in the sand or roll the gravel in their mouth to clean it completely.

You can read my thoughts on sand and gravel here, what are the pros and cons and which you should pick. It could be helpful for you in the future.

Queen Arabesque Pleco

queen arabesque pleco

Okay here is where price starts to go up. The queen arabesque has a very beautiful black and white maze type pattern, it’s pretty bizarre and beautiful to see, so that is why the price goes up more for the uniqueness.

It’s also in the 4 inch zone or smaller. A nice benefit of this species is it’s scavenger habits and will clean up and eat most food off the bottom that is left behind.

They require a little warmer temperature than a lot of the common tropical species.

Zebra Pleco

Zebra pleco

This is the most expensive species on this list, one of these will likely run you from $100 to $250 each.

They are beautiful though, and very sought after by fish hobbyists, hence why the prices on these guys have gone up.

This is a very shy fish, and should have lots of hiding areas and plants to shelter in. 

Like the queen arabesque it also needs a warmer temperature. It will need additional bottom feed, meaty foods, high quality flakes. Since you are paying a high price for these you want to give them royal care.

In order to provide for the warmer temperature you should be using a very reliable aquarium heater. This species of plecostomus (and any species of fish in my opinion) is too valuable to risk malfunctions. If you are going to use a submersible heater in your aquarium then check out these heaters in my recommendations article, they are hands down the most reliable when it comes to submersible heaters.

Pleco Caves

I mentioned this a little earlier in the article about plecostomus caves. With Bristlenose Plecos especially—they can get aggressive and territorial if you have more than one male together. 

Some of the other species behave the same way.

A good solution to this is to provide caves for each individual male or each pleco you have in the tank. This will give them their own space to hide out in and keep the stress levels down.

Most of these small plecos would enjoy a hide away cave to dwell in as well. Like the Zebra Pleco. 

There is tons of DIY solutions for pleco caves. Just type “pleco cave” in a YouTube search and you will get a bunch of results on Do-It-Yourself type caves. 

They also have these pleco caves you can pick up for cheap on Amazon, click on the image to check out the low prices on these.

Related Questions

What is the lifespan of a bristlenose pleco? Bristlenose pleco have a listed life span of 5 years or more. There are fish keepers that reported having their bristlenose plecostomus live up to an astounding 20 years in their home aquariums.

What is the size of a clown pleco? The clown pleco is a dwarf species of plecostomus. Its size is approximately 3 1/2 inches. Though in some cases it could grow up to 4 inches. It can be kept in smaller aquariums but it is recommended no smaller than 20 gallons.

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  1. Patti on said:

    When discussing plecos it’s a good idea to use the L number system to identify them. For example, you mentioned “rubber lip” plecos. In fact there are at least 13 known species of rubber NOSE plecos, each with vastly different sizes, colour variations and care requirements. The L number system was devised in order to differentiate the many known species of pleco because a lot of them look alike at first glance. For more information on pleco species a good site is PlanetCatfish.com

    Another issue is diet. People assume that all plecos are algae eaters because of their “sucker” mouths, when in fact most are omnivores or carnivores. The Queen Arabesque for example is a carnivore and won’t touch algae. The Zebra pleco is also a carnivore. Every pleco species should be carefully researched before buying, as many are not suitable for the average home aquarist.

    • Randy Martin on said:

      Thank you for the reminder and input! I agree a reader should do more detailed research on the specific breed they are considering buying.

  2. Mike B on said:

    I had good luck with Plecos in my tanks until recently.
    Purchased some rubber mouth plecos for my tanks one each. Tanks are 3 thirty gallon and one twenty. I have mollies and sward tail fish in them.
    My trouble is after a month or two they seem to die off. My bristle nose just passed it was 5 years old.
    The tanks are kept clean water changes and filters are cleaned regularly.
    Food is tables for Plecos and flakes for the fish sometimes red worms or brime shrimp.

  3. Mary Pearson on said:

    I learned a lot of much need information about Plecos from your article. I invested about $700 in PLECOS for my 6 tanks, in one month. Within 8 weeks only 2 out of 13 are still alive. Its not so much the money, as the attachment l feel for my fish.
    Thank you