An Introduction To Keeping Botia
One of the greatest joys within the tropical freshwater hobby surely is keeping loaches from the genus Botia, members of the family Cobitidae. Unfortunately, finding any accurate information on their care can be difficult, and many wrong opinions abound. To add to the confusion, the genus Botia was revised in 2004, placing the majority of the Botiine loaches into new genera. In this article, I hope to provide solid information on the proper care of these wonderful fish, and show you how a shoal of loaches can really liven up your aquarium.
These inquisitive and predominately bottom-dwelling fish originate from quite a vast geographic area, which covers most of Asia. As a rule, they prefer water that is soft and slightly acidic, and this should be replicated as closely as possible in the home aquarium for best long-term results. While they may acclimatise to water of a medium hardness, it is simply unfair to force these fish to adapt to inappropriately high levels of hardness and pH. The water should also be low in nitrates, clean and well oxygenated.
Loaches, being river fish, are accustomed to living in the clean fresh waters that their native waterways provide – they are not used to the build-up of organic wastes that can occur all too easily in the closed system of an aquarium, so regular partial water changes are essential. You should aim for at least two partial changes per week, removing and replacing a total of twenty-five percent total tank volume weekly, at the minimum. Botiine loaches will appreciate a good flow in the aquarium, which can be provided by spray bar returns from external filters or via the use of additional powerheads. This will mimic their natural environment of moderately fast flowing rivers and streams - these fish can often be seen swimming against the flow in obvious enjoyment.
The substrate should consist of either inert aquarium sand (my preferred choice) or fine smooth aquatic gravel. Anything sharp must be avoided to protect the delicate sensory barbel area. I have seen loaches which have been kept on coarse gravel for several years with very worn-down barbels; it is a sad sight to see and is so easily avoidable. In some cases, particularly if the gravel is not kept free of detritus, the sores on the barbels can become infected.
Décor should also be chosen carefully in order to protect these very small-scaled fish from harm. Rocks which are rough and sharp (such as lava rock), should definitely be avoided. One of the favourite pastimes of most Botiine species is trying to squeeze into tight crevices, often in groups. Any type of décor with rough or sharp edges can be dangerous to these curious fish. Many Botia keepers have told horror stories about their fish becoming trapped in spaces into which they never would have considered them able to squeeze or fit. Closing up holes in ceramic décor or wood with aquarium silicon sealant can keep this from happening to you.
Good choices for décor would be bogwood and slate, with which you can construct many natural looking caves for your fish to retreat into should they feel threatened. Without a sufficient number of hiding spots, the loaches will be in a permanently stressed-out state and therefore vulnerable to problems such as white spot (Ichthyophthirius mulitifiliis). Your dealer should also recognise this need, and under no circumstances should they keep their loaches in bare stock tanks.
Plants can be added to the aquarium, but generally do not last long, as most loaches may either pop holes in the leaves or even snip off small stemmed plants entirely. I have found Microsorium pteropus (Java fern) and Anubias species to be the most robust, and seem to outlast the loaches attentions the longest. One other point to bear in mind is that Botia prefer subdued lighting, another reason why plants may not always fare so well in such a set-up.
An open swimming area should be included in your aquarium, as these fish often enjoy swimming the length of the tank and back in their shoals, usually in the evening, or under further subdued lighting, such as a blue moon tube. Always remember to keep the hood tightly covered, as all loaches are expert jumpers.
Botiine loaches are shoaling species and must always be kept in groups. In my opinion, five is the absolute minimum. Kept as solitary specimens they can become either aggressive or reclusive, the latter causing them to pine away, sometimes refusing to feed, leading to a painful and premature death. These fish develop social bonds with each other and find comfort in the form of a shoal of others of their own kind. They will usually form a pecking order, with a fish known as the ‘Alpha loach’ quite obviously in charge – this is usually (but not always) the largest loach in the aquarium and is often a female. Follow this ‘numbers’ rule and you will get the chance to see them behaving naturally and at their fullest potential; put plainly, keeping just one (or a low number) of these remarkably social fish is simply cruel.
Do not rush:
Botia are very sensitive to less than good water conditions, and therefore should not be the first fish added to a new aquarium. Ideally, the tank will have been set up for a few months before they are introduced. For the more peaceful species, you should invest in some ‘dither fish’. Loaches like to be able to poke their heads out of their caves and see other fish swimming about, letting them know that it is safe for them to come out and play. Suitable dither fish would include for example, barbs, danios, rasboras, and tetras, but this will be dependent upon which loach species you choose to keep – some are not so friendly!
Selecting your fish:
When selecting your loaches, you want to be sure to find healthy fish. It is therefore advisable to shop around until you are confident that the dealer is providing well-rested and well-fed fish, preferably of at least 5 cm (2 in) in size (with the exception of the dwarf species Y. sidthimunki). Fish under this size are generally weaker and may not do well unless fed intensively, which is not usually possible in the confines of the home aquarium. The loaches should have been rested after import for several weeks before sale to ensure that no problems arise. Avoid fish that appear lethargic with clamped fins, or fish that are painfully underweight.
Introducing your new fish:
Botiine loaches have powerful weapons concealed just under their eyes in the form of suborbital spines, which they can use as defence mechanisms. Usually kept relatively flat beneath their skin, they can easily go unnoticed. Therefore, care should always be taken when netting these fish as they may extend those spines in self-defence when threatened. The spines can become entangled in the netting material, causing them much distress. Similarly, your dealer should always ‘double bag’ any loaches purchased, to ensure that their spines do not break through the bag on your journey home. Larger specimens may even require a third layer.
On your arrival home, you should turn off your aquarium lights whilst acclimatising your loaches, to minimise stress. Once acclimatised and released into the tank, you should leave the lights off for several hours afterwards in order to allow them to explore their new surroundings in relative darkness.
A common trait of newly introduced Botiine loaches (or if you change the décor around in an existing tank containing loaches) is for them to perform what is nicknamed by loach enthusiasts as ‘The Loachy Dance’. This is where they appear to dive bomb in a shoal, up and down at the sides and corners of the tank. This usually settles down within a few days as they get to know their new home. However, it is not likely that the dance is always a stress reaction, as loaches have been known to do this even in tanks that have been set up for years. I regularly see my shoal of forty Clown loaches doing this in the evenings under blue moon lighting. They usually perform their dance when it is getting close to feeding time, and they are very obviously excited. I feel that in this instance it is more of a social bonding behaviour, each one bumping into others and letting them know they are there – they seem to feel happy and safe under such circumstances.
Feeding your fish:
Loaches, more often than not, tend to be lumped into the somewhat misleading category of ‘scavengers’. They are not. These bottom-dwelling fish require their own food source, and this should be as varied as possible.
At the shop where I work, we have an extensive selection of loaches (usually between thirty and forty species at any given time). To keep them in tip-top condition, we feed small amounts of both dried and frozen foods three times per day. The most important feed is the one at the end of the day when the lights go out – as I have said previously, most loaches prefer subdued lighting and not all will be confident enough to venture out until the light levels are reduced. This is something which I also replicate in my 84” x 27” x 28” (1000 litre/265 gallon) Clown loach aquarium at home. I use various sinking catfish pellets (of which the JMC brand are much preferred!), sinking carnivore pellets, algae wafers, Tetra Prima, and frozen foods such as white mosquito larvae (their favourite), brineshrimp, daphnia, krill, mysis etc. Larger specimens will very much appreciate chopped prawns (salad shrimp). I personally tend to stay away from bloodworm, as it is a very rich food. If you do choose to feed it, do so sparingly. You can also supplement the diet with slices of cucumber, courgette (zucchini), or even melon, held in place with a marine ‘lettuce grip’ or weighed down with some aquatic plant weights, which the loaches should thoroughly enjoy. When adding food to the aquarium, it is not unusual to see some smaller loaches grabbing a piece and swimming off to a hidey-hole to eat it in peace, away from their larger fellow loaches, which may otherwise try and steal the food from right out of their mouths!
Some species (which I will discuss later) are more aggressive than others. However, even the more peaceful species will occasionally argue with each other, and this usually occurs between two similar sized fish. You may notice the fish in question become paler and more grey in appearance (a term referred to as ‘greying out’). They will spread all their fins wide and assume a slightly nose down position, whilst circling each other and making audible clicking sounds. They may also try to bite each other, but this is not normally anything to worry about as no harm is usually done and the disputes are settled relatively quickly. If you keep a large group, the aggression will be spread amongst the shoal, so that no one fish becomes constantly victimised and overly stressed.
Chromobotia macracanthus (Clown Loach)
I will start with the loach that is the most popular within our hobby – the Clown Loach (Chromobotia macracanthus) - although it probably shouldn’t be the most popular, given its adult size. This fish, of Indonesian origin is sold, more often than not, to unwary aquarists to help rid their tank of snails. Yes, they will eat snails, but so will other, smaller (and usually more suitable) species of Botia. Clown Loaches can attain a size of 30-40 cm (12-14 in) in the home aquarium, and grow even larger in the wild. Books, websites, or dealers that suggest six inches as a maximum size are simply advising incorrectly. To keep these magnificent fish, you will need to house smaller specimens in a tank at least four feet long, and be prepared to move them into a minimum 6’ x 2’ x 2’ when adult. If you cannot see yourself being prepared to provide this sized aquarium for them, you should instead invest in a species that does not reach the same proportions. Clowns can live for decades (some sources suggest up to fifty years) if cared for correctly, so they are a life-long investment and should be treated with respect. As a very rough guide, some of my longer term residents reached nine inches in length within ten years. I have also acquired larger specimens over the years, the most sizeable being twelve inches in length and thought to be over fifteen years of age. Adults are very powerful fish and require a great deal of swimming space – the footprint of the tank is always more important than the height. Nevertheless, if you can provide them with spacious aquaria, you will be rewarded with amazing displays of natural behaviours. They are peaceful towards other fish and never intentionally harm smaller species.
Botia almorhae (Yo Yo Loach)
Botia almorhae (formerly known as Botia lohachata) is frequently available in the UK or US under the name Pakistani Loach. It is a white coloured fish with black markings along its body more-or-less in alternating shapes of ‘Y’ and ‘O’ earning it the popular international common name of Yo-Yo Loach. Because of their slightly more feisty nature, some sources suggest keeping solitary individuals, but this will merely heighten their aggression level towards other fish species. Kept as a group, these loaches will be more concerned with each other than their tank mates, although small fish and long-finned fish should definitely be avoided. Botia almorhae can reach 17cm (6.8 in) in length, and their markings transform into a more reticulated pattern as they age.
Botia dario (Queen Loach)
Botia Dario, also known as the Queen Loach or Bengal Loach, tends to vary in temperament. Acquaintances of mine have kept this species with other fish, including other Botia sp. without any obvious aggression. However, I once added a shoal of thirteen of these fish into my large Clown Loach aquarium, where they wreaked utter havoc and nipped at the fins of all the Clowns, even those that were huge in comparison. It took the best part of a day to catch and re-home them, so I would advise a certain amount of caution when considering this species. They have been reported to reach up to 15 cm (6 in) in their native streams of India and Bangladesh, but most specimens I have seen have not attained quite that size, 10-12 cm (4-5 in) is more usual. They can be a little territorial and do argue amongst themselves from time to time, but in a moderately boisterous tank containing medium sized barbs or deep-bodied tetras etc, they should do well.
Botia histrionica (Golden Zebra Loach)
The Golden Zebra Loach, Botia histrionica, is a stunning addition to the community aquarium. Reaching around 13 cm (5.2 in) maximum length, it is not as widely available in the hobby as perhaps it should be. Found in the clear mountain streams between India and Myanmar, this beautiful fish has a pattern of irregular black bars on a white background. It is peaceful in temperament and can be kept with most other fish, with the exception of some long-finned varieties.
Botia kubotai (Polka Dot Loach)
A relatively recent discovery, Botia kubotai, sometimes known as the Polka Dot Loach, hails from fast flowing waters in Myanmar. It is thought to reach a maximum size of around 15 cm (6 in), and can be kept with most community fish, although very tiny or long-finned varieties are probably best avoided. It is a fairly peaceful species, although squabbles do sometimes break out between individuals within the shoal, or with other Botia sp. Of similar markings sharing the same tank – however, no significant damage usually arises. No two fish share exactly the same colour pattern, and these markings change as the fish mature.
Botia rostrata (Ladder Loach)
In 2004, fish taxonomist Dr. Maurice Kottelat reported that he considered the Ladder Loach, Botia rostrata, to be a junior synonym of B. almorhae. I have included it here as it is still exported and sold as a ‘separate’ species and is quite widely available in the trade. Despite this development linking the two species, many people report that these fish are actually much friendlier than B. almorhae. Juveniles sport a black twin bar (ladder like) pattern on a white-gold background, and as the fish mature, this transforms into a net-like reticulated pattern. In the wild, this fish, which grows to 16 cm (6.25 in), occurs in the hillstreams of India and Bangladesh. In the home aquarium they are more likely to reach a size of 8.5 cm (3.3 in).
Botia striata (Zebra Loach)
Probably the most readily available of what I would term a ‘small and peaceful species’ would undoubtedly be the Zebra Loach (Botia striata) from India. With a maximum size of 10 cm (4 in) it is much more suited to smaller tanks, and will co-exist peacefully with all other species. It’s glorious pattern of thin alternating black and white bars is eye-catching, and lends itself perfectly to this fish’s other common name of Candystripe Loach. I can’t recommend this species enough!
Yasuhikotakia modesta (Blue Botia)
Yasuhikotakia modesta (formerly Botia modesta) are awesome blue-grey coloured fish with bright orange-red fins. However, they are aggressive characters and are not suited to the general community aquarium environment. They can attain 25 cm (10 in) in length, but will rarely grow to more than 18 cm (7 in) in the home aquarium. Their adult size requires a tank at least five feet long. This species is nocturnal, so for best viewing purposes, employ the use of blue moon lighting set to come on for a few hours just as the main lights switch off. This is also the best time to ensure that they get their fair share of the food. Beware of dyed specimens, which still unfortunately enter the trade. How anyone could think that the magnificent natural colours of this species need altering is beyond me - steer clear of any shops supporting this cruel and unnecessary practice.
Yasuhikotakia morleti (Skunk Loach)
The Skunk Loach, Yasuhikotakia (formerly Botia) morleti is inexpensive, readily available, and stays small at around 10 cm (4 in). But, be warned! This small species can be extremely nasty, and they are best housed in a large tank because of their aggression level. When kept in a confined space, they can cause much damage to other fish species. In a larger set-up, you may be able to get away with housing a shoal of Skunks with a group of medium-sized fast-moving barbs, for example. This should be attempted with caution, regularly monitoring the tank to ensure that the other inhabitants are not becoming victimised. They are a beautiful fish with shimmering golden-brown bodies, a black mid-dorsal stripe from head to tail, and a spotted caudal fin. Ideal tank mates would also include loaches from the Tiger Botia group, (now known as Syncrossus sp), such as S. hymenophysa, S. helodes, and S. berdmorei. Tiger Botia grow large, some up to 25 cm (10 in), so be sure to provide them with ample space.
Yasuhikotakia sidthimunki (Dwarf Chain Loach)
Yasuhikotakia (formerly Botia) sidthimunki is the smallest member of the group. Known as the Dwarf Chain Loach, this fish reaches a maximum size of just 6 cm (2.5 in). These loaches make a fascinating addition to the smaller aquarium not only because of their size, but also due to a rather unusual habit - that of shoaling out in the open above the bottom level of the tank for many hours of the day (unlike most other Botiine loaches). Very sadly, this fish is now critically endangered in the wild due to the building of man made dams along the rivers of its native Thailand. Fish that are offered for sale these days are the result of captive breeding projects (probably via hormone injection) and as a result, prices can be quite high. Remember that these fish need to be kept in groups of five or more individuals. Nevertheless, they are charming peaceful loaches that make great additions to the community aquarium that houses smaller species.
I do hope that I have covered some of the more commonly found species, and given you some insights into their quirky behaviours and needs. Once settled, they are relatively long lived and will reward you with all the social interactions of their natural behaviours. Oh, and if you see them lying on their sides, they are most probably just having a snooze…
Original article by Emma Turner first published in Tropical World Magazine, Issue 9.
Adapted for Loaches Online by kind permission.