Clown Loaches – Chromobotia macracantha

Some freshwater fish are desired for their personalities; others for their coloration. Clown Loaches possess both of these qualities.

But beware, aquarium enthusiasts – Clown Loaches require much more care and attention than their playful name implies.

While pet shops and aquarium stores frequently sell them at the endearing immature size of 1-3 inches, these bottom-feeders don’t stay that way forever. They rapidly grow to 5 inches in length and, with good care and some time, can easily reach up to 13 inches! They are also quite picky about their environment and water parameters. If you do things right, though, they can live up to ten years. That’s longer than some dog breeds!

We aren’t clowning around here.

So, does this make them a poor choice for your aquarium? That depends. If you’re a beginner, then yes. These guys will probably give you more trouble than entertainment. However, for intermediate to advanced aquarists, Clown Loaches can be a rewarding part of your community tank.

Read on to learn about Clown Loaches so that you can decide whether they’re right for you.


Clown Loaches, a.k.a. Chromobotia macracanthus, are part of the Botia family and the sole members of the genus Chromobotia. They were first described by Pieter Bleeker in 1852 and have long been a popular option for freshwater aquariums. Their taxonomic place in the world of science has changed a couple of times over the years.

You’ll often see Clown Loaches advertised as a solution to snail problems in home aquariums, but this is misleading. While they eat snails in the wild, they won’t consume enough to rid your tank of its infestation. Also, snail infestations are usually an indicator of excessive waste in your tank. Since Clown Loaches are rather sensitive creatures (more on that below), choosing them to combat a problem caused by poor water quality is a recipe for dead fish and disappointment.

Another thing to keep in mind about this species is its susceptibility to illness. Ich (Whitespot Disease) is a particular concern, but Clown Loaches can suffer from numerous freshwater fish diseases. To complicate matters further, they’re also unusually sensitive to medications. For this reason, it’s best to consult your local aquarium experts prior to treating your tank; consider beginning with a half-strength dosage to avoid doubling the problem for your Clown Loaches.

The information you’ve just read might seem a bit disheartening, but don’t despair quite yet!

Now it’s time to talk about the qualities that make these fish so fascinating and in-demand.


Physical Characteristics

We’ve already mentioned above that Clown Loaches get big – really big. But that’s not the only impressive thing about these fish.

Let’s talk about looks.

Being bottom feeders, these fish have the typical body shape of a flattened ventral (underside) surface and arched dorsal (upper) surface. Their bodies are long and laterally compressed, with a large head, a long, pointed nose, and a downward-facing mouth that allows them to suck up food from the floor of their environment easily. They also have four pairs of barbels – those distinctive whisker-like sensory organs that help them navigate their world and contain their taste buds. Their caudal fins are deeply forked, giving them a sort of boomerang-like resemblance.

The base color of the Clown Loach body ranges from yellowish orange to deep orange. Their fins are typically bright red, although one variety that comes from Borneo sometimes has more black pigmentation on the pectoral fins. Three wide, uneven vertical stripes dividing up the body: one transects the eyes, one circles the body right behind the ventral fins, and the third extends unevenly from the dorsal to the anal fin. This colorful striped pattern – along with their silly personality – is what earned these fish the moniker “clowns.’

Interestingly, Clown Loaches aren’t completely scaled, as most fish are. They possess tiny scales across the majority of their body, but these are so small that many people mistakenly believe that they are scaleless. Their heads, though, are exposed. This evolutionary quirk makes them particularly susceptible to Ich, as we mentioned above. It is also the reason that full doses of medication can be harmful to them.

We can’t forget to mention one last and extremely important physical feature of Clown Loaches: the moveable spine below their eyes.

Yes, you read that correctly: Clown Loaches possess a secret defense weapon below their eyes in the form of an extendable spine. In fact, the second part of their Latin name (macracanthus) loosely translates to “large thorn.” When Clown Loaches get stressed or feel threatened, they release this subocular spine. While ichthyologists aren’t certain, they believe that this body part may also be used for hunting in the wild.

The piece of bone is not venomous, but it won’t feel good if you have the bad luck to be pricked by it. For that reason, you must be extremely careful when handling or moving your Clown Loaches. Not only do you risk injury to yourself, but you can also hurt your fish if this spine gets tangled up in netting.


Looks may be important, but, as anyone will tell you, it’s the personality that makes or breaks a relationship.

Luckily, Clown Loaches have personality in spades.

They are schooling fish, which means that they are naturally gregarious and energetic. They adore chasing each other around the tank, but only if they are kept in shoals (groups) containing five or more individuals. Anything less risks them becoming timid and spending their time hiding rather than entertaining you.

If that’s not interesting enough, these guys possess a fascinating and sophisticated social hierarchy. Each shoal has an alpha fish, who is usually female. Other fish defer to and mimic her.

You may find your Clown Loaches engaging in a vertical dance, where the entire shoal tumbles over itself repeatedly while facing upward. You may also notice a small Clown Loach pressing itself against a larger fish and mimicking its movements. This interaction is termed “shadowing.” Even stranger – that larger fish isn’t always a fellow Clown Loach!

Lastly and most commonly, Clown Loaches are notorious for randomly deciding that maintaining an upright position is simply too tiring for them. These silly fish are often seen lying on their sides or even upside down, frequently under some sort of décor. While in most fish, this would be a cause for alarm, it’s par for the course for Clown Loaches and part of what makes them so desirable for home aquariums.


Tank Mates

In case you haven’t figured it out already, Clown Loaches make great tank mates in a community tank. While they can be skittish, they don’t harass other fish at all, even much smaller ones. They are happy to share space in the middle and lower levels of the tank with other peaceful species.

The list of potential tank mates is too long to write out in its entirety, but commonly preferred species include: Tiger Barbs, Cherry Barbs, Kuhli Loaches, Neon Tetras, Plecos, Angelfish, and Discus.


Natural Habitat

Clown Loaches are native to two specific islands that make up the Southern Pacific island nation of Indonesia – Sumatra and Kalimantan (the Indonesian portion of Borneo). While the populations are completely separate and technically distinct, it can be somewhat difficult to tell the two apart. The most obvious difference is the color of the pelvic fin. In the Sumatran sub-group, this fin is either red or orange. The Kalimantan sub-group, on the other hand, exhibits varying degrees of black.

Clown Loaches live in fast-flowing rivers and streams filled with plant matter and with low light penetration. They are primarily nocturnal, being most active at dawn and after dusk.


Aquarium Set-up

In order to keep your Clown Loaches happy, there are a few things that you must have in your tank. The first thing is hiding space. Being both playful and skittish, these fish need ample places to dart into whenever they feel like it. You can create these by placing rocks, overturned pots, cave décor, plants, or even plastic tubing. The substrate should be soft and sandy to avoid damaging their sensitive barbels.

The second thing is appropriate lighting. Clown Loaches much prefer low lighting and can hide if they feel that their environment is too brightly lit. You may want to consider putting wallpaper on the sides of your tank and using a blue “moonlight” tube for evening lighting so that you can still see what’s going on without disturbing your fish.

The third consideration is space. As we discussed above, Clown Loaches are sold small but grow quite large. Your fish will require several tank upgrades throughout their long life. Even as small fish, you should try to give them a minimum of four feet of horizontal space to swim in. Anything smaller can stress them and stunt their growth. Assuming that you do things correctly and your Clown Loaches thrive, they may end up requiring a tank measuring at least 6’ x 2’ x 2.


Water Conditions

Water quality is key for Clown Loach health and survival. This species definitely counts as “high maintenance” because of its strict water requirements.

First, you absolutely must have an excellent filtration system. This needs to be combined with fastidious attention to cleanliness, as well as frequent water changes. You should also invest in a quality aeration system that provides a unidirectional, fast-flowing current. This will mimic their native river habitat. Just be aware that, while a high-flow current is important, your fish will also need a low-flow area to rest on occasion.

Then there are the water parameters. You want your water warm, acidic, and soft. In terms of numbers, we are talking a temperature range of 77-86 degrees Fahrenheit, acidity between 6 and 7.5 pH, and hardness of no more than 15 dH.

In order to keep everyone happy and healthy, you will want to test your water quality frequently. Some people advocate doing this weekly to avoid being surprised by an Ich outbreak or an unexpected build-up of waste.


Feeding Habits

Clown Loaches are omnivores, but their natural diet tends to favor meaty meals more than plant-based foods. For this reason, you must provide them with a varied diet that includes a fair amount of live or frozen foods.          

Defrosted frozen bloodworms, white mosquito larvae, sinking shrimp pellets, etc. should be mixed in with algae wafers and high-quality flake food. Clown Loaches are also big fans of nibbling on aquatic plants, so you may want to consider giving them occasional access to a few of those. Be aware, though, that they will eventually kill these plants if left alone with them, unsupervised. They will also happily gobble up any other food intended for other fish in their tank that happens to fall to the ground.

As with most other fish, aim to feed your Loaches twice a day and only what they can easily consume in one or two minutes.


Breeding Behavior

Breeding Clown Loaches is not for the faint of heart. Monsoon season is the breeding season for these fish. In nature, they migrate to spawn, selecting flooding bogs in which to lay their eggs. Both this process and the environment are almost impossible to replicate in the aquarium setting.

Sometimes you may get lucky and find your Clown Loaches preparing to create a new generation. Even if the female does lay eggs, though, there is a decent chance that the male will fail to fertilize them. And, even if you cross that hurdle, the parents are very likely to eat the eggs before they have a chance to hatch.

If you are determined to try breeding this species, you should follow the general guidelines for freshwater fish breeding:

  • Plump up your breeding pair with extra food
  • Set up a dedicated breeding tank with water that is slightly warmer and more acidic than their normal tank
  • Provide lots of spawning locations and hiding places for the fry

Be prepared to remove the spawning pair as soon as the deed is done to prevent cannibalism. Also, be prepared to care for your new, tiny fry for several weeks to months before they are large enough to be introduced into the community tank.


Size Variations

While there technically aren’t variations in size for this species, there is some disagreement in the field about potential maximum size. Many sources report that Clown Loaches can grow to a foot or more in length, while others claim that this is unusual, and domestically-kept specimens rarely exceed eight inches.

Fact Sheet

Common Name:  Clown Loaches

Latin Name: Chromobotia macracanthus

Size: maximum 13 inches

Place of Origin: Indonesia

Temperament: docile

Water Level: mid to bottom

Tropical / Coldwater: tropical

Preferred PH: slightly acidic (6-7.5 pH)

Soft / Hard Water: soft to medium hardness (5-15 dH)

Johanan Viljoen

Johanan Viljoen