Loaches: Riverine Acrobats of the Orient, Part 2

Author: Stan Sung

In part 2 of his series, the intrepid explorer/collector continues his overview of the sociable and energetic jesters of the freshwater aquarium hobby.

Loach Species

In part one of this article I highlighted the delightful clowns of the water world known as loaches. There are many different species of these fun-filled fishes, and all of them have different features, temperaments, maximum sizes, and other characteristics. What follows is a continuation of part one’s “gallery of species,” a random sampling of loach species that I have either personally kept or have collected in nature. Included is an aggression scale of 1 to 5 for each loach species, with “1” being inoffensive and gentle, and “5” being highly antagonistic.

Botia striata

Common Name: Striped loach, zebra loach

Aggression Level: 1

Maximum Size: 4 inches

This is a completely innocuous little loach that should be considered for any community of peaceful fish. The thin gray/green lines on their flanks vary in width, and the body coloration can be dusky pink, light orange, or yellowish. This Indian species appreciates a fine sand substrate, and is very active, while still being milder and never playing as rough as some of the more outgoing botias do.

Botia sp. "Tenasserim River"

Common Name: Emperor botia

Aggression Level: 3

Maximum Size: 10 inches

Known as the “holy grail” of loaches, this dazzlingly yellow species was once considered unobtainable, and it dwelled, a wish unfulfilled, on every loach enthusiast’s most-wanted list. Loaches Online (www.loaches.com) reports that the yellow and chocolate emperor hails from the remote Tenasserim River in Myanmar (Burma), where access is impeded by military protection. It is said that these botias can only be taken out by an old drug smuggling route hampered by drug dealers, civil unrest, and remoteness. Imagine my surprise when vendor Frank Greco informed me that he had several pieces coming in that weekend! He asked, needlessly, if I had any interest in purchasing them. Despite their steep price, the answer was an emphatic “yes!”

My close friend Soe Nyunt Tun of Yangon, Myanmar has collected the emperor botia alongside several other unidentified botias in the Tenasserim River near the town of Myitta. The other botias cohabitating with emperors are extremely stocky, with patterns similar to B. rostrata and histrionica.

Emperors make energetic, dashing show fish that are not overly aggressive with other species, but actively chase each other around the aquarium. They have proven to be durable captive subjects and it is hoped that aquarists will have some luck propagating this fish.

Chromobotia macracanthus

Common Name: Clown Loach

Aggression Level: 1 to 2

Maximum Size: 16 inches

The flagship of its clan, the beloved clown loach is a perennial favorite and a mainstay in the aquarium hobby. C. macracanthus possess all of the desirable personality traits of loaches, such as being highly social, playful, and comical without being aggressive or overly territorial. Once in a while a large clown loach may get a little possessive about its food, but other than a few minor squabbles these fish are usually model tankmates. One look at the striking and colorful patterning on the clown loach and it is no wonder why this fish has become the most popular of all the loaches for the home aquarium.

They do have a few drawbacks that the hobbyist must take into account before purchasing some of these orange and black beauties. This is a massive, jumbo-size fish, which puts out a lot of waste and demands clean, oxygenated, warm water. Although not extremely fast-growing, well-fed individuals may put on a couple of inches per year and will outgrow most moderate-size aquariums. Anything under 125 gallons would be considered too small to accommodate several large clown loaches.

These fish are sensitive to pollutants and medications. They should only be placed into well-aged aquariums with good water quality. Ich is a persistent problem with this species, and many of the stressed specimens offered for sale will quickly be overwhelmed by this parasite unless they are placed in a comfortable environment and treated with appropriate ich medication at the first sign of the disease. Remember to employ treatment using 50-percent of the recommended dosage with twice the duration. Once healthy and acclimated, these chunky fish will entertain endlessly as they lie on their sides or cozy up against a rock to wait for their next meal.

Gastromyzon, Balitora, Beaufortia, Hemimyzon, and PseudogastromyzonSpecies

Common Name: Hillstream loaches

Aggression Level: 1 to 3

Maximum Size: 2 to 4 inches, depending on the species

These bona fide hillstream fish can be touchy when kept in captivity. Avoid individuals that have light, unpigmented blotching. Clean water that is well oxygenated and cool (70°F) is appreciated. Aquarium decor should consist of polished river rock and pebbles—preferably with algae growing on them. The hillstream loaches will pick at the algae. This may prove to be a valuable feeding mechanism while training them onto prepared frozen foods. Like most loaches, once they are settled the hillstream loaches will recognize feeding time and rally with the other tank inhabitants. I have found that using a turkey baster to squirt the food (thawed frozen worms and shrimp soaked in water) in the direction of the gastromyzons may help to initiate sufficient feedings at mealtime.

Homaloptera confuzona

Common Name: Lizard loach

Aggression Level: 1

Maximum Size: 3 inches

These oddly beautiful creatures are a true delight to house in properly designed (highly oxygenated) aquaria. Being hillstream fish, if provided with the correct conditions H. confuzona will be active, outgoing, and brightly patterned in a unique mahogany coloration. Its rather delicate appearance belies the fact that, once settled, these are peaceful fish with terrific appetites. Lizard loaches rarely show aggression to conspecifics (or to other species) and should be kept with members of their own species.

Homaloptera smithi

Common Name: Lizard loach, gecko loach

Aggression Level: 1

Maximum Size: 2½ inches

Like the other lizard loaches, H. smithi can be a little sensitive when first introduced to the aquarium. If proper hillstream conditions are met, these little aquatic geckos will be active and brightly patterned. For the first two weeks or so they may remain hidden along the back wall of the aquarium, but soon they will join the other fish in the aquarium at feeding time. Gecko loaches have a unique way of stalking and pouncing on their prey when feeding time rolls around. It’s always entertaining to watch one of these fish slowly stalk a food item and eventually suck it in with lighting speed.

Homaloptera yunnanensis

Common Name: Lizard loach

Aggression Level: 1 to 2

Maximum Size: 2½ inches

Here is a streamlined lizard loach that is sometimes found as a contaminant in shipments of Homaloptera smithi. I have found this species to be more territorial then most other Homaloptera. An individual will frequently choose a spot, such as a rocky ledge, to call its own. Although far from aggressive, H. yunnanensis can be possessive of this territory and will chase tankmates away. It may take some time for lizard loaches to adjust to the confines of an aquarium. They will frequently hide and sulk, or dash around uncomfortably for the initial few days. Once settled they are animated and amusing captive subjects.

Lepidocephalichthys berdmorei

Common Name: Pepper loach

Aggression Level: 1

Maximum Size: 4 inches

A very durable loach indeed, the pepper loach is equally at home in glass-clear highland lakes or in sweltering rice paddies. In Myanmar, villagers will construct traps fabricated out of native dried reeds to capture these loaches. A small amount of mashed beans is placed inside the trap. Much like a modern minnow trap, a hole in the center of this trap allows the fish easy entry, but because of inward facing reeds the fish are unable to exit easily. Collectors will take advantage of this species’ ability to absorb air from their abdomens; many L. berdmorei are placed in shallow plastic holding trays with no oxygen or filtration while they await exportation. These tubs usually contain loaches and small snakeheads such as Channa harcourtbutleri. Lepidocephalichthys are sometimes called “baby faced” loaches, and all of the species are exceedingly peaceful and gentle.

Lepidocephalichthys guntea

Common Name: Pepper loach

Aggression Level: 1

Maximum Size: 6 inches

Although they are capable of growing to a robust 6 inches in length, L. guntea remains a very gentle and shy species. Pepper loaches are ideal tankmates for any placid community.

Lepidocephalus thermalis

Common Name: Marbled hog-face loach

Aggression Level: 1

Maximum Size: 3 inches

Another “baby face” or “hog face” loach, L. thermalis is an extremely gentle fish that should never be placed in aquariums with aggressive or nippy fish. It is content when placed with members of its own species. Watch for imported juveniles that are too small and emaciated to adapt to aquarium life.

Mesonoemacheilus triangularis and M. guentheri

Common Name: Batik or zodiac loach

Aggression Level: 3

Maximum Size: 2½ inches

This loach is named after the Malaysian art of batik, in which fabric with ornate designs is framed out by wax and dyed in multiple treatments. When completed, these pieces have beautiful, free flowing designs in which no two are alike. The aptly named batik loach is also blessed with wonderful patterns of alternating dark and light orange-brown. Mesonoemacheilus guentheri is a frequent contaminant in shipments of M. triangularis, which is from India. They are similar in temperament and size, but instead of having a repeating chevron pattern like M. triangularis, the guentheri are decorated with mother-of-pearl spots over a dark base color.

Both are as feisty as they are beautiful. These lighting-fast little fish are territorial and constantly squabble over territories in the confines of an aquarium. I like to keep at least a dozen of these delightful fish in a tank with hillstream conditions—meaning clean, highly oxygenated water and smooth, flat rocks for refuge. This species has been bred and well documented in captivity by Sallie Boggs. There is a link at Loaches Online for additional information regarding the captive spawning of M. triangularis. These are fish with loads of personality. I like to feed mine frequently—at least twice a day to keep up with their fast metabolisms.

Misgurnus anguillicaudatus

Common Name: Weatherfish, dojo, Chinese weather loach

Aggression Level: 1

Maximum Size: 8 inches

It is said that the weatherfishes announce changes in barometric pressure with their behavior. At the approach of a storm, these elongated loaches are reported to become active and restless. Although this fish is snake-like in appearance, it is one of the most harmless and passive of all the loach species. They do not appear to be territorial and are not combative, in contrast to some of their feistier cousins. Weatherfishes are wonderful aquarium residents that will appreciate fine-grained sand, since they spend some of their time buried (usually partially, with only their heads exposed). Their tender bodies really do suffer in aquaria containing large or sharp substrate material. Xanthic gold and piebald morphs are regularly available in the trade and are popular because they are more conspicuous than the cryptically colored natural variety.

Nemacheilus ornatus

Common Name: Ornate sand loach

Aggression Level: 1

Maximum size: 2½ inches

Here is an active yet very peaceful member of the loach clan. So many species of Cobitidae are either territorial or aggressive, but not the beautiful little ornate sand loach. These loaches are happiest in groups of three to six, where they will cavort throughout the aquarium. Peaceful fish that will not be disturbed by the constant activity of N. ornatus will make the best tankmates.

Pangio doriae

Common Name: Golden kuhli Loach

Aggression Level: 1

Maximum Size: 4 inches

The golden kuhli is full of surprises. The very long, thin body and small head of P. doriae suggest a fragile aquarium subject. I have found that goldens are exceptionally durable in aquaria compared to most of the other Pangio species. They feed well and adjust quickly to aquarium life. Despite their worm- or eel-like appearance, the golden kuhli does not bury itself as much as one might think—even when placed in enclosures with a fine sand substrate.

Pangio oblonga

Common Name: Black kuhli loach

Aggression Level: 1

Maximum Size: 3 inches

The stocky black kuhlis have become a mainstay in the aquarium hobby. This is a robustly built Pangio species that often adapts better to captivity than the banded members of the genus. All the little worm-like loaches of the genus Pangio should only be kept in well-established tanks that offer many hiding places in the form of flat stones and plants.

Parabotia fasciata

Aggression Level: 2

Maximum Size: 6 inches

My online distributor is always kind enough to notify me upon receiving a shipment of wild loaches from Asia. Once in a while “contaminants” can be found among shipments of standard aquarium species. I was lucky enough to be rummaging through a tank full of newly imported Sinibotia robusta when I noticed a single nervous specimen with a more elongated build. Parabotia fasciata is a rare treasure indeed. I quickly netted it (along with a few Garra imberba) out of the holding tank of S. robusta. Although superficially similar to the genus Syncrossus (the tiger loaches), P. fasciata is fortunately much less antagonistic in captivity. The unique body shape and peaceable nature of this fish makes it one of the most suitable and desirable of the Chinese loach species.

Sewellia lineolata

Common Name: Tiger butterfly loach

Aggression Level: 2 (antisocial toward conspecifics)

Maximum Size: 3 inches

Ah…the beloved tiger butterfly. These enchanting little fish with flying-saucer-shaped bodies and terrifically ornate color patterns also possess personality in heaps. Unlike many of the hillstream loaches, tiger butterflies usually stay out in the open, and they aren’t nearly as shy as some of their diminutive cousins. S. lineolata feed well on most types of sinking food items and will quickly learn to search the substrate for tasty morsels.

Quite friendly toward other species, they will usually present their brightest golden color while charging at another tiger butterfly. These short bursts of dominance are comical to watch and do not end up damaging other fish (or themselves). Like other hillstream dwellers, S. lineolata should be placed in aquariums with plentiful aeration and preferably some current produced via power filters or powerheads. Tigers come highly recommended as a first hillstream species. They have been bred and raised in captivity.

Schistura balteata

Common Name: Sumo loach

Aggression Level: 4

Maximum Size: 3½ inches

These little beauties have taken the aquarium trade by storm recently. The sumo loach is as fearless, durable, and rugged as they come. Newly imported specimens will quickly (within days) realize who has the hand that feeds them. Even small individuals of an inch or so will boldly dash up to a submersed hand containing food. Swimming between fingers, they will tear off chunks of frozen brine shrimp or bloodworms with gusto. Sumos like to stay in a shaded area that they will stake out as their own. They are possessive of their territories and will quickly chase away any intruding fishes. Constant squabbles occur in a community of sumos. There have been unconfirmed reports of the mighty little sumos having been successfully bred and raised in captivity.

Schistura mahnerti

Common Name: Redtail sand loach

Aggression Level: 3

Maximum Size: 3 inches

Here is another representative of the diversified Schistura group. This is one of a plethora of exciting imports from the border region of Thailand and Myanmar. Along with S. mahnerti and Botia kubotai, incredible fish such as rhino glassfish Parambassis pulcinella have made shipments out of Myanmar full of new fish for the home aquarist. The redtail sand loach is a typically territorial Schistura that tends to spend much of its time in the shelter of rocky crevices. When at ease in their environment, they take on a pleasing gold coloration.

The Banded Schistura spp.

Common Name: Banded loach, polka-dotted loach, bicolor loach

Aggression Level: 2 to 4, depending upon species

Maximum Size: 2 to 4 inches

Much confusion surrounds the many similar-looking banded Schistura species. All of them make scrappy and hardy aquarium residents. Schistura beavani is a typical banded schistura that makes an attractive aquarium subject. S. beavani reminds one of a hard candy, with its opaque but translucent body and coffee-colored lines. S. beavani makes itself at home, happily residing in the front and center of their aquarium. One species that has bands broken into elongated spots is the polka-dotted loach Schistura corica. These loaches can be very aggressive toward conspecifics and may overeat if given the opportunity. Another species, S. savona, has dark bands only on the upper half of the body, which gave it the common name of bicolor loach. Bicolors are some of the smaller and friendlier of the banded schisturas.

Schistura sp. “Crimson”

Common Name: Crimson loach

Aggression Level: 3

Maximum Size: 3 inches

Knock-your-socks-off colors and the outgoing attitude of Schistura sp. “crimson” will keep the hobbyist enchanted. These are feisty, territorial little fish known to squabble and chase one another. They appear to be sexually dimorphic, as some individuals developing a deep red and black suit are dominant and aggressive, while others (juveniles, females, and subordinate males) are lighter in coloration. It is said that crimsons come from one small, protected area in Southern India. This outstanding fish will be a worthwhile challenge to breed in captivity, as it is colorful, in great demand, and comes from a limited natural range. I hope that captive breeding will occur, thus relieving the strain of collection on wild populations. Freshly imported crimson loaches can be quite touchy, and once established they should be moved as little as possible.

It was not until my third batch of crimsons that I had success in maintaining these beauties. Victor Zuleta of Poseidon Aquatics was kind enough to order these fish from India over and over again for me.

Schistura pridii

Common Name: Mini dragon loach

Aggression Level: 2

Maximum Size: 2 inches

This flamboyantly patterned schistura is strikingly colored in mother-of-pearl and dark charcoal bands and saddles. When scurrying around the aquarium at feeding time, the mini dragon does loops, twists, and turns, much like a dancing dragon in a Chinese dragon parade. I have kept these mini dragons alongside much larger, non-predatory gobies. S. pridii have the endearing habit of hiding under and next to the lumbering bottom-dwelling gobies!

However, it is rumored that S. pridii are scarce in their native Thailand. Most of their range lies within national park boundaries, which would mean that most specimens available may have been illegally poached. If this information proves to be true, then hobbyists should do the responsible thing and not purchase or request this fish. The few mini dragons that do arrive should be pampered in pristine hillstream aquariums with few tank inhabitants, thus making captive reproduction more likely.

[Stay tuned for Part 3!]

See the full article on TFH Digital http://www.tfhdigital.com/tfh/200712/#pg104