Clown Loach Care: Aquarium Setup, Tank Mates & Feeding Tips

Whether you know them as clown loaches or tiger botia, the orange-and-black bottom-dwellers make popular additions to any community aquarium in need of color and activity.

Chromobotia macracanthus known as well as Clown Loach dwelling the bottom of a freshwater aquarium

These little tiger-striped catfish enchant aquarists with their personalities and unique behaviors.

Dr. Pieter Bleeker first described clown loaches in 1852. They received the scientific name Cobitis macracanthus at that time.

Recently, though, they’ve undergone reclassification twice. In 1989, they were renamed Botia macracanthus, joining other Indian loaches.

It wasn’t until 2004 when Dr. Maurice Kottelat determined these striped fish were unique enough to deserve their own genus, that they settled on Chromobotia macracanthus.

But while the scientific community’s haggled over names, aquarists have remained enchanted.

Tiger botia requires proper tank sizing and school numbers to remain healthy. This may present a challenge for newer aquarists.

Their care, however, remains relatively unremarkable. And if you’re on top of your game, you’ll get rewarded with an active tank.

At a Glance

Minimum tank size: 150 gal (570 l)
School Size: at least five
Water temperature: 75-85°F (24-29°C)
Lifespan: 10 years
Size: 12 inches (31 cm)
pH: 6.0-7.5
Hardness: 8-12 dH
Ammonia: 0 ppm
Nitrite: 0 ppm
Nitrate: <25 ppm

Clown Loaches: In the Wild

Clown loaches frequent rivers and streams in Borneo, Kalimantan, Malaysia, and Sumatra.

They prefer areas along the banks with plenty of shade. The bottoms generally have fallen leaves, twigs, and other debris, providing hiding places.

During spawning season, clowns migrate deeper into rainforest areas. The flooded regions – courtesy of monsoons – have slower-moving waters.

The heavy leaf litter stains the waters a tea color, further dimming the light.

Curiously, clown loaches have divided into two color morphs, depending on their region.

In Borneo, you’ll see black pectoral fins. In contrast, Sumatran clowns have orange pectoral fins. The two populations may end up divided into separate species down the road.

Size: Larger than Expected

Clown loach or tiger botia dwelling aquarium's bottom with white gravel
Juvenile clown loach – still at a manageable size

Most aquarists notice tiger botia for sale as juveniles. The black-and-orange fish come in around 2-3 inches (5-8 cm) at that age.

Unfortunately, uninformed people assume this manageable size will persist, and the clowns end up crowded into unsuitable tanks.

Clown loaches experience steady growth, topping out around 12 inches (31 cm) as adults.

You’ll quickly find a need to upgrade your juveniles to larger and larger aquariums if you didn’t prepare to begin with.

Clown Loach Lifespan

In captivity, clown loaches live an average of ten years.

You may see rumors of exceptionally-well cared for clowns living for 25 years, but they’re rare. You need to keep the water quality and tank in pristine condition if you hope to see that kind of lifespan.

Behavior

Tiger botia need schools to prevent excessive hiding. Without a shoal of at least five, your fish will spend all of their time ducking into caves and avoiding the open water.

You’ll end up disappointed, and your clown will end up more susceptible to health problems.

Clown loaches have unique hierarchies, with a female alpha fish. Proper groups will remain active throughout the day, though you’ll see the most activity in the dusk and dawn hours.

The school follows the lead of their alpha, and clowns have several unique behaviors.

Shadowing involves smaller fish pressing against a larger member of the school and mimicking their movements.

If you don’t provide a proper school, you may see your clown attempting to shadow other fish in the tank – with mixed success.

Clown loaches will also lie flat on the bottom of the tank.

New aquarists may fear the fish has passed on, but the behavior is normal (and unique) to these tiger-striped clowns.

If you watch long enough, the fish will right itself and swim off with the group.

While difficult to hear due to the short burst, clowns produce a “whirring” sound to deter predators.

They may also make the sound to startle potential prey. The purr is low in frequency, so you may only observe the other fish’s reaction.

Tank Setup

Keeping in mind the growth rate of your clown loaches, a school of juveniles can start in a 75-gallon (300 l) tank.

However, as they grow, you’ll need to upgrade fairly quickly. A school of adult clowns requires a 150-gallon (568 l) aquarium – or 30 gallons (114 l) per loach.

Clown loaches gravitate toward a strong current in the wild. The best way to replicate this in your tank is with an HOB filter.

If you choose a canister filter, augment the water flow with a powerhead or air stones.

Water Conditions

Tiger botia come from tropical regions. As such, you need to invest in a good heater to keep the tank around 75-85°F (24-29°C).

Ideally, aim for 78-79°F or 25-26°C to keep your clowns as happy as possible.

The majority of clown loaches sold in stores are wild-caught.

They live in slightly acidic, moderately hard waters. You want to keep your pH level around 6.0-7.5 and your water hardness around 8-12 dH.

As with most fish, your water quality needs to remain as pristine as possible.

Clown loaches won’t tolerate ammonia or nitrites. Check your levels regularly, especially if you start noticing any problems.

Decorating the Clown Loach Tank

Fish Botia Clown (Chromobotia macracanthus or Botia macracanthus) in the freshwater aquarium

Unlike many other catfish species, clown loaches enjoy an active lifestyle. You want to provide plenty of swimming room.

However, don’t forget their preference for subdued lighting. You can find the perfect compromise by selecting the right plants for your tank.

Clowns ARE omnivores, and they may nibble at the greenery.

Chromobotia macracanthus known as well as Clown loach feeding on algae on aquarium bottom
(source)

If you choose a blend of sturdy background plants and floating varieties, your clowns should remain content to explore the tank without decimating the plant life:

And while tiger botia love exploring their environment, they also savor downtime.

Every member of the group needs a hiding place. You can achieve this with caves, tubes, or artificial décor.

Just make sure the “holes” are large enough your clowns don’t get stuck.

Clown Loaches in Communities

Group of Chromobotia macracanthus also known as Clown Loach in community aquarium with Kribensis cichlids
Kribensis cichlids with a group of clown loaches in a community setup

Clown loaches have peaceful temperaments. With their active lifestyle, they make the perfect addition to colorful community aquariums.

You’ll never get tired of watching them play and interact with the other fish – well, other appropriate fish.

Tank Mates

Tiger botia or clown loach with rainbow fish and tiger barb in the community aquarium setup
Rainbow fish, tiger barb, and clown loaches

In the wild, clown loaches are found in the company of Asian arowana, barred rainbowfish, comb-spined catfish, hard-lipped barbs, spotted eel loaches, and tiger barbs.

Tiger botia with tiger barbs and black molly in the community aquarium
Tiger barbs, black molly, and clown loach adding a splash of color to your aquarium

Most calm, bottom-dwelling species pair well with clown loaches.

However, as long as you choose similar-sized fish with compatible personalities, you’ll find yourself with a peaceful tank. Suitable tank mates for clowns include:

Incompatible Species

While SOME cichlid species do well with clowns, most of the group feature aggressive personalities that don’t pair well.

Predatory fish, in general, don’t have a place with tiger botia. While they DO possess a sharp spine beneath their eyes for defense, you can’t rely on it.

You also want to be careful with adding snails to your aquarium. Clown loaches LOVE snails – as a food source.

Many aquarists use clowns for pest control. So, skip adding snails to your tank unless you add enough to compensate for the occasional midnight snack.

Feeding Your Clown Loaches

Clown loach and Bristlenose pleco peacefully sharing cucumber on the bottom of aquarium
(source)

As omnivores, clown loaches may not seem like the most demanding fish to feed.

However, their choice to stick to the bottom water layer can present a few challenges – to you. Food doesn’t do any good if it never reaches the intended fish.

There’s nothing wrong with opting for a commercial fish food but skip flake-types!

By the time flakes reach the bottom, most of the nutrients have dissolved into the water, leaving nothing for your clowns. Stick to pellets, granules, or sinking types.

Clown loaches ADORE live foods. Once a week, introduce one of their preferred protein sources to provide some extra exercise:

Don’t forget to add in some greens where you can. If you peel, blanch, and chop up vegetables, they’ll sink to the bottom nicely.

Then your clown loaches can feed on the pieces to their hearts’ content. Popular choices include:

  • Cucumber,
  • Lettuce,
  • Squash.

Breeding Clown Loaches: Migratory Problems

Unfortunately, the record on captive-breeding clown loaches is poor. Few records exist.

And the problem’s relatively simple: in the wild, clowns migrate to spawning grounds in flooded forests. It isn’t easy to replicate that behavior in a tank environment.

Males or Females?

Determining your males from your females is a simpler undertaking.

Male clown loaches are larger, and they have more vibrant coloring. When you look at the caudal fin, it’s also larger, with a more pronounced “V” shape.

Spawning Grounds

If you want to attempt to breed your clown loaches, you’ll need a separate “spawning tank.”

Set it up with pristine water conditions and plenty of dense plant cover.

You want a temperature of 77.9-79.7°F (25.5-26.5°C) and a pH of 6.2-6.4.

Your selected pair of tiger botia need to be sexually mature. This happens around 6 inches (15 cm) in length.

For a few weeks, provide live foods and step up the quality of their nutrition. In the wild, this would signal a plentiful monsoon season. Keep a close eye on the female during the feeding phase.

When her width expands, you know she’s ready to spawn. That increase means she’s produced eggs. You can now add the pair to the spawning tank.

As soon as the female lays her eggs and the male fertilizes them, remove the pair from the tank. If you don’t, they’ll eat the eggs.

What you want to see are pink, wiggling eggs. That’s a sign you were successful. Brown eggs? They’re infertile – no dice.

Once the eggs hatch, you can feed the clown fry on infusoria. As they grow, graduate them to baby brine shrimp, Tubifex worms, and ground-up commercial foods.

They can join the community tank when large enough to handle themselves in the school.

Health and Disease

No aquarist likes finding ich in their aquarium. And, for whatever reason, clown loaches tend to be the first in the tank to contract symptoms.

You need to stay on top of ANY new additions to your tank: fish, decorations, plants, etc.

Clown loaches may have the label of “scaleless catfish,” but they DO possess scales embedded in their skin.

That doesn’t make them any less sensitive to medications. You’ll probably have to HALF the dose to keep from causing problems.

As most clowns come wild-caught, check the ENTIRE tank in the store carefully.

If you see a dead fish, skip it. Odds are the entire tank’s infected with ich already. You don’t want to bring home an ill fish.

Clown loaches are also prone to “skinny disease” or “knife back disease.”

This results from a protozoan infestation. Your clown grows emaciated, despite a normal appetite.

You can treat the infestation with medication but read the label carefully.

Once again, look at your purchase source carefully before you bring your fish home.

Undernourished fish likely have the protozoan, and you don’t want to start a battle within your aquarium.

Clown Loaches: Are They for You?

These popular members of the loach family run a little high in the cost department – about $9 a fish.

Some stores might be willing to offer a discount if you buy a school, though, so keep an eye out for deals.

You need to invest in a large aquarium if you want to keep clown loaches.

And you’ll have to take special care. The spine beneath their eye isn’t venomous, but you don’t want to prick your finger on it by accident or snag it on a net during transfers.

If you’re willing to set aside the time and finances, you won’t find a more attractive little schooling catfish.

With their curious behaviors and bold stripes, you’ll find yourself making every excuse to pause beside the tank to watch.

Closing Thoughts

Clown loaches combine the best of both worlds: colorful patterns and bold activity.

Peaceful in nature, they also get along with many like-minded freshwater fish. So long as you stay on top of water health, you couldn’t ask for a better catfish.

Do you keep clown loaches? Have you heard that “whirring” sound?

What about a glimpse of that frightening “death” positioning?

Share your questions and stories with us here!

Comments:

  1. Joya

    We have had our Clown loach since 1994 – he/she must have been about two at the time, making him/her about 28. He/she has stopped eating – including bloodworm – and is taking up even more ludicrous positions than usual – including standing on his/her tail. Despite not eating for two weeks, he/she still looks slightly fat, if anything. We have treated for worms with Levasol, but none were seen. He/she looks uncomfortable, as if constipated, but won’t eat anything. All water tests are fine – nitrates are about 25 – 30. What more can we do for our old friend?

    Reply
    • Bob Flickerton

      It is obvious that you know how to care for your Clown loach since it has lived so long. Good job! It is not possible to diagnose what is going on with this fish by your description. The water quality looks good and you are doing everything right. I would give the fish some more time and see what happens. Maybe try a different live or frozen food.

      Reply

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