The clown loach is possibly one of the most popular non-cichlid species kept by African enthusiasts. Its colorful appearance and playful nature, along with its ability to adapt to a rift lake environment make it a joy to house with cichlids. Clown loaches originate from Borneo and Sumatra (Indonesia/Malaysia), where they can reach lengths of 12” or more – making them a candidate for human consumption in that part of the world. Fortunately, they have found a warmer place in the hearts of aquarists. In captivity, they rarely grow larger than 6 or 8 inches. They have a moderately elongated shape, an arched back and almost straight belly profile. The body is orange with three wedge-shaped vertical black stripes, and the fins are orange-red. Males can be identified by a slightly larger tail that hooks inward as opposed to the tail of the female, which points straight out from the body. Clown loaches are egglayers, however, reports of successful breeding in captivity are nearly non-existent. They have a lifespan of 15+ years.
Although research outside of the cichlid community indicates that clowns prefer soft water with a pH no higher than 7.5 – many cichlid keepers will vehemently deny that opinion. In my own experience, after tiring of common tropicals, I became intrigued with African cichlids and began planning for a transition. The only fishes I could not bear to part with were 3 clown loaches. After clearing the aquarium of all other inhabitants, I slowly (over 2-3 weeks) brought the pH and hardness up to rift lake standards. My clowns endured the change with apparent ease, and today – nearly 5 years later – the same loaches that once swam alongside swordtails thrive with Peacocks and other Malawians. Fortunately, African cichlids hardly seem to notice clown loaches, and have rarely been reported to show aggression towards them. Many hobbyists speculate this is due to the unusual color and markings of the clown loach. Obviously, be sure not to introduce small clowns into a tank with larger predators who may see the loaches as potential food. And take care to slowly acclimate a new clown loach to your tank, as it is very likely accustomed to a lower pH if purchased from a local fish store.
As scavengers, clown loaches will eat just about anything. They scurry around the tank (often when the lights are out) and forage in the gravel in search of uneaten food and waste. Many hobbyists report that their clowns will come to the top of the tank during feeding and eat floating pellets or flake food along with their cichlid tankmates. They are omnivorous, and if kept with herbivores should be given some additional protein. One way to accomplish this is to use a tube, such as a PVC pipe, and drop sinking pellets through it to ensure they reach the substrate without being snatched up on the way down. This is also an effective way to ensure your clown loaches (especially larger ones) get enough to eat if they are not coming out at feeding time. As always, take care not to overfeed… keeping in mind that a fish’s stomach is roughly the size of ONE of its eyes. If you are keeping your clown loaches with other omnivores, they will especially delight in an occasional treat of bloodworms, brine shrimp or krill.
The only feeding problem I've ever encountered with my loaches occurred after I introduced a Synodontis to the tank. The catfish was a voracious eater and would zip around the tank at feeding time, swallowing every morsel of food possible. He barreled through the caves where the loaches were nibbling on pellets and promptly consumed anything a startled loach might drop. After a few months of this, I realized the clown loaches had become less active, more skittish, and were often not visible at all - even at feeding time. Being particularly attached, I made a choice and returned the Synodontis to the LFS. That very day, all three loaches began coming out again, feeding from the top, and playfully buzzing around the tank. Personally, I would not recommend keeping clown loaches in the same tank with more aggressive scavengers.
As one of the scaleless members of the Cobitidae family (along with others of the Botia genus), clown loaches are often the first fish in the tank to show signs of ich when the parasite is present. If treatment becomes necessary, take care in choosing medications because loaches and other scaleless fish absorb chemicals through the skin more readily than their scaled counterparts. Read labels on any medication thoroughly and NEVER use Clout® as it can be lethal to scaleless fish. For detailed information on the prevention and treatment of ich, click HERE.
Clown loaches are peaceful, schooling fish that should be kept in groups of 3 or more. Keeping a single loach without at least one companion is almost cruel; after observing their playful antics you’ll understand why one might make such a strong statement. They can often be seen fluttering and chasing around the tank in pairs, occasionally stopping to rest on the gravel or atop a flat rock. Sometimes they will even attempt to engage other tankmates in play – usually to no avail. Without its own kind to socialize with, a lone clown loach will never be as happy and healthy as it could be.
Unlike many scavengers, clown loaches will not forage extensively during the night. They like to find caves or other hiding places just barely larger than their bodies, and sleep for many hours at a time. They are notorious for trying to squeeze into spaces too small for them, so be sure to offer plenty of choices. They have one other notable habit, which could certainly alarm an unsuspecting new keeper. If you should ever discover one of your clowns lying motionless on its side, take a good long look before administering the last rights and reaching for your net. Chances are, it’s probably just taking a little loach-nap!