Don’t Clown around. At­trac­tive, lively, char­ac­ter­ful Bo­tia loaches are far more suit­able for your av­er­age-sized home aquar­ium.

Practical Fishkeeping (UK) - - Contents - WORDS: STEVE BAKER

Bags of char­ac­ter, but less than half the size of the ubiq­ui­tous Clown loach, Bo­tia species are far bet­ter suited to the av­er­age-sized home aquar­ium.

When it comes to loaches and home aquaria, the Clown loach is still a hugely pop­u­lar seller in the UK, de­spite re­ally be­ing an un­suit­able fish for all but the big­gest tanks.

if you don’t yet know yet why so many con­cerned hob­by­ists and re­spon­si­ble sell­ers are try­ing to stem the Clown’s long-term pop­u­lar­ity, it’s purely down to size. if they grew to a max­i­mum size of 10-15cm, they would be the per­fect trop­i­cal aquar­ium in­hab­i­tant – colour­ful, bold, play­ful char­ac­ters, not to men­tion help­ful con­sumers of (pest) snails.

Clown loach are com­mu­nal, ac­tive, at­trac­tive shoal­ing fish that de­serve to be ad­mired, but they’re also very large for shoal­ing tank fish. With a po­ten­tial size of 30cm-plus, and an ab­so­lute min­i­mum of five fish needed in or­der to to of­fer them con­fi­dence – and also give their viewer a chance of ob­serv­ing nat­u­ral be­hav­iour – it makes a suit­able tank for Clowns far from suit­able for most homes and bud­gets. the 30-year or so life­span of th­ese fish also means that you’d be sign­ing up for as long a re­spon­si­bil­ity as hav­ing chil­dren.

the funny thing is, there are lots of quite closely re­lated loaches that are just as pretty and in­ter­est­ing as the Clown loach, but don’t have the same is­sues of size and de­mand on space.

Wel­come, then, to the world of Bo­tia loaches…

Top ten

the king­dom of Bo­tia be­came a smaller place in 2004 when the genus was re­vised and pre­vi­ous fam­ily mem­bers were moved into new gen­era. now the Bo­tia genus holds just 10 species, com­pared to the 67 mem­bers it held pre­vi­ously. Five of the cur­rent 10 are reg­u­larly avail­able to the in­dus­try and the other five turn up spo­rad­i­cally. Bo­tia aren’t tricky fish to cater for, but none are suited to very small tanks – the small­est species re­quire a 1m-long tank at least, for a small group. the sub­strate is one area you need to get right. Just as with Co­ry­do­ras cat­fish, there’s a health risk if you use any form of sharp gravel, and

Put aside some dirty tank wa­ter with plant mat­ter and a few pest snails. You’ll soon have a larder of snails to feed your Bo­tia loaches.

large-grade gravel is best avoided even if it’s smooth. Sand is the best op­tion, but fine-grade, rounded gravel (like 0.5-2mm pea shin­gle) is per­fectly ac­cept­able.

The rea­son for this is twofold. First, Bo­tia loaches have very del­i­cate bar­bels around their mouths. On sharp sub­strate they be­come sore and dam­aged; worse still, with sharp and dirty gravel they be­come in­fected and they can lose them all to­gether – it’s al­most like us los­ing our hands and our tongue.

Sec­ond, they have a ten­dency to dig. This is eas­ier to do in sand and can be en­cour­aged by adding tun­nels and tubes to the aquar­ium and part bury­ing them. With some Bo­tia this can lead to plants be­ing turfed up; this is com­mon with the Yo-yo loach, Bo­tia lo­hachata, and the Polka-dot loach, Bo­tia kub­o­tai where har­bour­ing plants on wood like Anu­bias, Bu­cepha­lan­dra and Java fern is a good al­ter­na­tive.

The other Bo­tia fam­ily mem­bers are slightly smaller and tend not to dig de­struc­tively, es­pe­cially with fine gravel (rather than sand), and in the pres­ence of wood or rocks, so th­ese species are much more suited to planted tanks.

Tight fit

When think­ing about tank decor, there are a cou­ple of things to be wary of be­cause th­ese loaches have a real love of tight spa­ces. If there’s a small crevice made by your rock

for­ma­tion, a Bo­tia loach will squeeze it­self in. For this rea­son, you need to use rel­a­tively smooth-sided rock; if they rub against abra­sive lava rock, for in­stance, they’re likely to dam­age their skin.

When it comes to wood – or mov­ing and clean­ing wood, to be pre­cise – you also need to think about their hid­ing ten­dency. Re­mov­ing wood from the tank and leav­ing it on a drain­ing board or in the gar­den is highly likely to seal the fate of a Bo­tia loach or two. They’re so good at get­ting ‘stuck in’ that you’re un­likely to see them, so you’ll prob­a­bly give the wood a shake to make sure no one’s there.

How­ever, th­ese fish have a trick – un­der each eye lies a ser­rated, re­tractable spine. This spine is quickly bought into play at any sign of dan­ger and gives the fish a real strong­hold for safety. So when it comes to mov­ing wood, you need to ei­ther let it sit above the tank for a good 15-20 min­utes, or place it over a bowl of tank wa­ter for the same pe­riod, so any fish will drop into a wa­tery en­vi­ron­ment rather than dry­ing out in the wood. This switch­blade-like spine can also play havoc when trans­port­ing Bo­tia and other re­lated loaches. First off, with get­ting them out of the wood, then when they be­come caught up in the net, and fi­nally, once in a bag they’re quite likely to push their way into the cor­ner, pierce the bag and be­come stuck. So, when you buy th­ese spiny loaches, you need to make sure the shop uses a round-bot­tomed bag.

Bright, sparse tanks don’t suit Bo­tia. Of­fer them sub­dued light, plants for shade and lots of wood, tubes, or­na­ments or rocks.

The next thing to be wary of with Bo­tia is their sen­si­tiv­ity to med­i­ca­tions and ni­troge­nous waste. Many sources say this is at­trib­uted to their lack of scales; how­ever, they do have small scales that are em­bed­ded into their skin. Many par­a­site med­i­ca­tions have a warn­ing about loaches, com­monly stat­ing that a half-dose should be used in tanks that con­tain them, but this is mostly an is­sue with cop­per and/or formalde­hyde.

The other area to watch is wa­ter qual­ity, am­mo­nia ni­trite and ni­trate. Bo­tia aren’t the kind of fish to be in­tro­duced first to a new tank; they need to be added among the last fish, when your fil­ter is well ma­tured, with a healthy bac­te­rial colony.

Ac­tive & at­trac­tive

So, while there are a few things to be aware of and avoid, th­ese fish are well worth the ef­fort. What you get in re­turn is a group of ac­tive and at­trac­tive bot­tom feed­ers that show more char­ac­ter and per­son­al­ity, in my opin­ion, than the most pop­u­lar com­mu­nity bot­tom dwellers like Co­ry­do­ras.

Their play­ful be­hav­iour sees them in­ter­act­ing with fish fur­ther up in the wa­ter col­umn, some­times try­ing to in­clude them­selves in shoals of rain­bow­fish, barbs or larger ac­tive tetras. They’re well suited to liv­ing in quite fast-flow­ing waters, and are

very ac­tive when set­tled and happy in a group, which means you should avoid mix­ing them with shy or par­tic­u­larly se­date species.

I would avoid mix­ing any Bo­tia with the likes of Dis­cus, Choco­late gouramis and Wood cats and so on. I’ve also heard sug­ges­tions that they don’t mix well with Co­ry­do­ras be­cause of their hy­per­ac­tiv­ity clash­ing with the more re­laxed na­ture of the Co­rys. How­ever, I’ve known many fish­keep­ers who’ve kept them to­gether with no is­sues.

To be safe, I wouldn’t mix the slightly more bois­ter­ous Yo-yo loach or Polka­dot loach with Co­rys. As for Bo­tia stri­ata, B. histri­on­ica and B. dario, they seem fine with co­rys and less-ac­tive com­mu­nity fish such as Pearl gouramis and pen­cil­fish, but will still set­tle well with slightly larger, faster-mov­ing fish and flow.

Feed­ing is sim­i­lar for all Bo­tia species – they’re om­niv­o­rous scav­engers, con­sum­ing al­gae, dead plant mat­ter, aquatic mol­luscs, crus­taceans, worms and in­sects in the wild, so of­fer a wide range of foods in aquaria. Sink­ing pel­lets, sink­ing wafers and al­gae wafers are read­ily ac­cepted as sta­ple foods, but it’s worth mix­ing things up with fresh greens such as cour­gette, cu­cum­ber, pep­pers and blanched spinach weekly. Also, feed­ing reg­u­lar frozen My­sis shrimp, brineshrimp, Daph­nia, blood­worm and chopped mus­sels will help en­cour­age vi­tal­ity and health, as well as pro­vid­ing a fren­zied feed­ing show for the aquar­ist.

Fam­ily life

Loaches form gre­gar­i­ous, ma­tri­ar­chal fam­i­lies with com­plex hi­er­ar­chi­cal so­cial struc­tures. Of­ten, the dom­i­nant fe­male will be larger than

Their play­ful be­hav­iour sees them in­ter­act­ing with fish fur­ther up in the wa­ter col­umn

males or other fe­males fur­ther down the hi­er­ar­chy, and she’ll dic­tate the mood and ac­tiv­ity of the group.

Be­cause of this fam­ily struc­ture, it’s im­por­tant to main­tain a group of Bo­tia in good num­bers. Many are kept in three­somes but they should re­ally be kept in groups of at least five – and ide­ally 10 or more.

If kept in­di­vid­u­ally, Bo­tia loaches tend to be­come reclu­sive and some­times even ag­gres­sive to­wards tank­mates, par­tic­u­larly any­thing bear­ing a sim­i­lar­ity.

If kept in twos or threes, there’s a pos­si­bil­ity that the sub­dom­i­nant in­di­vid­ual will be har­rassed to the point of star­va­tion.

Note the rosy lips of Bo­tia stri­ata.

FAR RIGHT: You can see the rea­son for the Yo-yo nick­name.BE­LOW: Polka-dot loach, Bo­tia kub­o­tai.

ABOVE: Bo­tia are happy in a set-up of wood, rocks and plants.

BE­LOW: Young fish can be tricky to iden­tify.

Some­times they are rest­ful, but usu­ally not for long.

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