What to Know About Clown Loaches

Reviewed by Vanesa Farmer, DVM on December 02, 2022

Clown loaches are a popular aquarium fish thanks to their vibrant colors. These fish are usually caught in the wild and imported, as they’re difficult to breed in captivity. Keep reading to learn more fun clown loach facts.

Clown loaches, scientific name Chromobotia macracanthus, are a colorful species of tropical freshwater fish from Indonesia. 

The nickname “clown” is two-fold. First, clown loaches have an orange coloring with stripes similar to the typical clown fish (subfamily Amphiprioninae within the family Pomacentridae). They’re also fun to watch in their aquarium, as they often like to swim upside down and sometimes play dead.

Clown loaches aren’t a species of true loaches, which are in the family Cobitidae. While clown loaches were initially in the Cobitidae family, in 2004 a Swiss ichthyologist revisited the organization of loaches and moved clown loaches into the Botiidae family. The clown loach is the only member of the Chromobotia family.

Like the clown fish they’re named after, clown loaches have orange bodies.Their thick black stripes often have a white border, and these stripes extend to their fins. Their slightly elongated bodies normally reach a length of 7.9-11.9 inches (20-30 centimeters). When first sold, the clown loach size is usually only about 2 inches (5 centimeters).

Clown loaches have a pointed snout with barbels, or “whiskers” similar to those of catfish but much smaller. They use these barbells to search for food. Beneath each of their large, round eyes is a thorn that they can extend when they feel threatened. While these are not venomous, being stuck with one of these thorns can be very painful.

Clown loaches display some interesting behaviors that you may witness if you keep them in an aquarium. 

Though they live in schools, clown loaches tend to be aggressive and territorial. They like to have their own space, but often will become more aggressive if kept alone or in a very small group. 

Clown loach schools usually have a leader, and this leader is often a female. Sometimes members of the school will fight each other to establish dominance. You may hear them make a clicking noise when they’re squabbling.

In the tank, clown loaches will sometimes do a “dance” where they swim down to the bottom then back up to the top, over and through each other. This is especially common when a group has just entered a new environment and may continue for the first couple of days in their new space. 

You may also notice your clown fish swimming or sleeping upside down. While they may look dead, this is normal behavior for them. They’re mainly nocturnal and will sleep during the day while being more active in the evenings and at night.

Naturally, clown loaches live in freshwater areas in Indonesia, mainly rivers in Borneo and Sumatra. They’re bottom-dwellers, and will often hide under rocks, pieces of wood, or inside cavities of mud. 

The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species lists clown loaches as “least concerned,” meaning the population is currently not considered threatened. That being said, the population is decreasing.

One of the primary reasons for this decrease is the capture of wild clown loaches for the aquarium trade. Fish collectors gather these fish by poking holes in bamboo poles or by bundling bamboo poles together. When this bamboo is submerged, small fish will use it for shelter before finding themselves in a holding tank. 

The capture of wild clown loaches is not the only cause of their decreasing population. Habitat destruction also plays a part. 

Several things threaten the habitat of clown loaches, including wood and pulp plantations, dams and other methods of water management, and pollution for the agriculture and forestry industries. Indonesia has put some restrictions in place to prevent population loss. The government does not allow the capture of clown loaches over 6 inches (15 centimeters) to prevent the capture of fish that are ready to spawn.

Clown loaches are omnivores, meaning they eat both meat and vegetation. They eat things like plant matter and algae, but they’ll also eat small invertebrates like mosquito larvae, snails, worms, and tiny crustaceans.

Clown loaches feed from the bottom of the river, and will eat almost anything if it’s small enough. If needed, they’ll swim higher up, but the best food for them is food that naturally sinks to the bottom of the water.

Some clown loaches may live up to 20 years, but there is little information on this fish species’ lifespan

There is also very little information about their breeding process. In Thailand, hormones are used to encourage mating. There are reports of successful breeding out of other areas like Russia, the Czech Republic, and Florida, but those reports need to be confirmed. For the most part, clown loaches found in pet stores are wild-caught, and those that are bred in captivity are often much more expensive.

Clown loaches reportedly reach sexual maturity once they’re about 8 inches (20 centimeters) long. They typically breed in fast-flowing rivers at the beginning of the rainy season.

Because of their interesting look, clown loaches are popular in freshwater aquariums. When caring for these fish, one of the most difficult things is managing their personalities and behaviors. 

Clown loaches need to live with other fish, but also need their own space. Your tank needs to be big enough to comfortably hold at least five clown loaches while still allowing them to swim freely. At a minimum, the tank should be 79 inches (200 centimeters) long.

Since clown loaches like to hide, they need plenty of hiding spots within their tanks. Things like stones, flowerpots, driftwood, and half coconuts make excellent hiding places. Plants should also be included in the aquarium, but don’t be surprised if you catch your fish nibbling, as plants are part of their diet. Use a sandy substrate and keep the water flowing moderately.

Clown loaches may struggle if their water changes dramatically and suddenly, but otherwise aren’t particularly demanding when it comes to their water. Their water needs are very basic:

  • Hardness can range from levels 5-13
  • pH can range from 5.0-8.0, but ideal range is from 6.0-7.5
  • Temperature can range from 74-86°F (23-30°C)

Show Sources

AquaInfo: “Chromobotia macracanthus – Clown Botia.”
Bollmora Akvarieklubb: “Clown Loach.”
FishBase: “Chromobotia macracanthus (Bleeker, 1852).”
Integrated Taxonomic Information System: “Chromobotia  Kottelat, 2004.”
International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources: “Chromobotia macracanthus.”
Nanyang Technological University: “Close to Extinction: Clown Loach.”
Zootaxa: “Botia kubotai, a new species of loach (Teleostei: Cobitidae) from the Ataran River basin (Myanmar), with comments on botiine nomenclature and diagnosis of a new genus.”

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