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