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Issue: Feb 2018

Bottom of the Tank - Clown Plecos for the Planted Aquarium

Author: Joshua Wiegert

Bottom of the Tank - Clown Plecos for the Planted Aquarium
Photographer: Johnny Jensen/Aquariumphoto.dk
The clown plecos are a group of dwarf loricariid catfish that are incredibly beautiful, stay small in size, and can add a wonderful splash of color to the bottom section of a planted aquascape.

Placing loricariid catfish into a planted aquarium comes with a number of small challenges. When choosing any fish for a planted tank, care must be taken that the fish will not demolish the aquascape, either by devouring or uprooting it. These fish also need to stay reasonably small so they blend with the other typical residents. While there are many loricariids that do not eat significant amounts of plants, typically they are chosen for planted aquaria because of their willingness to eat algae, and this often correlates with an appetite for plants. When discussing plecos for a planted aquarium, the ones that instantly spring to mind are the bushynose plecos of the genus Ancistrus and their close relatives. (See TFH Sep/Oct 2015’s Bottom of the Tank for more on those fish.) However, while bushynoses are among the most popular small “pleco” types, there are several other groups that work as well. Among my personal favorites are the clown plecos, a small group of dwarf loricariids that have been eclipsed by the more commonly kept Ancistrus types.

The Clown Pleco

The common clown pleco (Panaqolus maccus) has been in the hobby for a long time. Although only formally described in 1993, the clown pleco was showing up in the retail trade for years before that, which makes it an earlier arrival than the bushynoses. A relatively small fish, the clown pleco reaches a maximum size of about 3½ inches (9 cm). They’re attractive fish, too. The body is dark black and encircled with bands that vary in color from off-white to bright orange. This coloration has a bit to do with mood and age, but also diet. Coloration tends to be brightest in juveniles and fades as they mature; fish kept outdoors for any length of time will develop far more intense coloration.

Additionally, the color pattern may vary wildly based upon the location from which the clown pleco was collected. Most of these fish are wild collected, and they occur throughout Venezuela. Various collection sites offer some variations in the pattern, which has resulted in the clown pleco being given several L-numbers, including L104, L162, and LDA022. They’re found in flowing water, typically living among branches and driftwood.

Tank Setup and Feeding

In the wild, they eat that driftwood, and they will browse on driftwood decorations in the aquarium. Wood should always be present so they have a constant supply as part of their diet. They’ll also graze algae from glass and rocks, but algae is not sufficient to keep them alive. Spirulina tablets may be eaten by some fish, but they tend to prefer standard pleco vegetables—zucchini, cucumber, squash, whole peas, and yams are all eagerly devoured. These vegetables can be fed raw or lightly boiled or microwaved to help them sink. I simply attach them to a rock with a rubber band, although other aquarists use all sorts of devices for this. A friend of mine spears the vegetables on one of the cheap stainless-steel forks he bought for the purpose and just drops it in, with a piece of string tied to it for easy retrieval later.

In addition to a good vegetable diet, clown plecos do need some meat. Their diet should be supplemented with a quality, sinking frozen food, such as daphnia, bloodworms, or similar items. Live blackworms are enthusiastically eaten.

When setting up a tank for these (or any) wood-eating plecos, keep in mind that wood is not digested very well. A lot of it simply goes in one end and out the other. These fish produce large amounts of solid waste, which can look unsightly, especially in a planted aquarium. Filtration and flow both help to remove this, as will large, regular water changes with a good gravel vacuum.

Breeding

While most of the clown plecos are wild collected, they’re quite easy to breed in the aquarium. Males possess odontodes along the gill covers and along the tail section. Odontodes are short, extended spines that are usually evident if the fish is removed from the water but can often be seen normally. Females in breeding condition are fat and round—it’s usually very obvious which ones are females.

Clown plecos will spawn in small caves, including the ordinary caves used by Ancistrus and similar species. However, they seem to prefer wooden caves. These can be easily made with a 2-inch (5-cm) drill bit and some large driftwood. Simply drill into the driftwood, but not completely through. If you have access to a drill press, this makes the operation a lot simpler, and a lot safer. Otherwise, be sure to secure the driftwood before drilling, as it is not a regular surface to drill into. A depth of 3 to 4 inches (7.5 to 10 cm) is all that is necessary, and many fish will use the drilled hole as a starting point, widening it over time. More simply, bamboo tubes can be used. Bamboo has become increasingly easy to find globally, and I simply visit any large stand I see. Find some downed, dried-out lengths. (Be aware that these are excellent habitats and hiding places for all sorts of creatures that you may not want to encounter.) A good wood saw will cut through them; just cut above each node and you’ll have a tube with a wall at the end. You can also cut them to form a simple tube.

The male will guard both the eggs and fry, and sometimes his disappearance will be the only clue that there’s been a spawning. The male will vanish into the cave for up to a month and then reappear with the juveniles. The juveniles are easily reared on basically the same diet as the adults—you’ll see them constantly crawling over driftwood and grazing, and sinking wafers will be devoured.

Conditioning these fish to spawn is not particularly difficult. With a good diet, they will often spawn consistently and regularly. However, some aquarists report triggering the fish by simulating dry conditions and then heavy rainfall. The fish are fed high-protein diets for several weeks, while the temperature of the tank is slowly increased to as high as 85°F (29°C). Then, usually coinciding with a local storm event, a large water change with cool 70°F (21°C) soft water is done. This works for many neotropical catfishes (and apparently many others, as well). Foods high in fat and protein should also be introduced to their diet. I use a lot of blackworms to condition fish for spawning, but frozen bloodworms and similar meaty foods will also work. I have seen several reports mentioning that feeding whole squash—with the seeds intact—has resulted in increased spawns. In the wild, these fish do eat seeds, and seeds contain a good amount of fats and proteins.

Similar Species 

PANAQOLUS SP. L397
In addition to the common clown pleco, a number of beautiful members of the genus Panaqolus are also appearing in the trade. Perhaps one of the most striking is the stunning L397. These fish appear in photos as a bright-orange fish with dark-brown bands. I was fortunate enough to obtain a small group of these fish last September at the Keystone Clash in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, via my friend Andreas Tanke.

Apparently, the bright coloration of Panaqolus sp. L397 is a result of its wild diet combined with sunlight—mine don’t look anything like that, and Andreas says they never will unless I put these very expensive plecos in an outdoor tub this summer (Mr. Raccoon, we need to have a chat!). In captivity, the bright orange tends to fade to a golden orange, which is still gorgeous—just don’t expect the brilliant orange you see in photos (and if you do get it, don’t expect it to last).

The L397 clown tends to be a little more of a vegetarian than the common clown and reportedly eats plants. I haven’t tried mine with plants yet, as they’re currently in a breeding setup. It is primarily a wood eater, and driftwood decorations will be carved and destroyed over time. They will spawn in wooden caves, as well, which they strongly prefer. L397 clowns tend to be a little aggressive with each other if adequate hiding places are not provided, so make sure there are plenty of caves and driftwood tangles for the fish.

These catfish tend to be fairly slow to mature, with adults only spawning for the first time at over a year in age. Spawning is similar to that of P. maccus. They produce a good number of fry, over 100 per spawning, and I suspect that as this fish becomes a little more commonly bred, it will drastically drop in price.


P. CLAUSTELLIFER

L397 is superficially similar in appearance to L306, which has been formally described as P. claustellifer. This is a slightly larger clown, reaching about 5 inches in mature size. The black bands are against an almost blood-orange coloration.

L306 and L397 are quite similar looking, but in L306, the bands are far wider, especially in the head area. While this fades in captivity, and with maturity, this is still a beautiful, striking fish. I was also able to obtain a small group of these guys from Andreas, and both these and my L397s will likely be featured in further detail once I spawn them (in about two years).

>>SSH/STY3<< TIGER PANAQOLUS
The beautiful P. tankei has also been making some appearances in the trade lately. This fish is a bright, bright yellow with black scribbles along it. The alternating pattern of yellow and black stripes has led to its common name of “tiger Panaqolus,” though it is also traded under the L398 number. It reaches a slightly larger size of about 5 inches (12.5 cm) but is otherwise similar to the common clown pleco. Their patterns tend to remain a lot longer, with mature fish looking nearly as colorful as juveniles. They’re definitely wood eaters, needing very little else in their diet.

Found in the lower Xingu River, this fish is endangered by the creation of the Belo Monte Dam. Like many other Xingu fishes, it is imperative that aquarists working with these species breed and maintain them.

PECKOLTIA VITTATA

In earlier literature, you’ll often see the clown pleco described as Peckoltia vittata. This is a separate fish, with virtually all clown plecos being members of the genus Panaqolus. The actual Peckoltia vittata has begun to show up in the hobby from time to time as the “candy-stripe pleco.” It’s quite similar to the clown pleco in appearance, but the yellow areas tend to be broader, and much, much more yellow than any of the previously mentioned fishes.

P. vittata is found throughout the Amazon basin in northern Brazil. Members of the genus Peckoltia are primarily carnivores, and while they graze some algae in the aquarium, it does not represent an important part of their diet.

MEGA CLOWN PLECO

In addition to the members of the genus Panaqolus, several other fish appear in the hobby with the “clown pleco” moniker. One of my favorites is the mega clown pleco, L340. This appears to be a species of Hypancistrus, making it fairly far removed from the members of the Panaqolus genus.

While they are not closely related to the true clown plecos, the mega clown pleco certainly looks the part. A bit more flattened than the Panaqolus, it has a beautiful light-yellow background with black scribbles all over. They’re similarly sized, reaching only about 3 to 4 inches (7.5 to 10 cm) in the aquarium.

These plecos are poor algae eaters at best and can starve to death surrounded by vegetables. The mega clown pleco is primarily a carnivorous fish, and its diet should include sinking catfish wafers, blackworms, and quality frozen foods. Be careful when choosing tankmates for any carnivorous pleco, as they can be slow on the uptake; more aggressive feeders will often result in hungry plecos. They will not harm aquarium plants in the least, making them a good addition to the planted tank.

The mega clown pleco is incredibly easy to breed—I’ve had them spawn in tanks in the shop and often find fry (or even juveniles) in my tanks. Males are easily identified by odontodes on the back of the pelvic fins. They’ll move into a cave, where the male will eventually guard the eggs and fry.

The fry will mature quickly on a diet of sinking pellets, though they also graze algae fairly well at a young age. Adding some standard pleco vegetables to their diet, particularly at this size, will help them mature. The young are fairly slow growing; I have several that are pushing a year and measure just over an inch (2.5 cm).

Send in the Clowns

While the various clown plecos may not be as great algae eaters as their more famous Ancistrus cousins, they are an amazing group of incredibly beautiful, small loricariids. These fish can add a wonderful splash of color and present the aquarist with a challenging and interesting breeding project. So send in the clowns!

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