While the Tetras (Characidae),  Corydoras (Callichthyidae) and Suckermouth Catfish (Loricariidae) were South American in origin, all other species that I tried rearing were Asian. And all of them, like the Mahseer, were members of the order Cypriniformes – the carps, minnows, loaches, and their relatives. The great majority of them are members of the carp family – Cyprinidae (with as many as 2,400 species) of Asia, North America, Europe and Africa. Other important families include Catostomidae (suckers), Botiidae (soldier loaches), Cobitidae (true loaches), Balitoridae (hillstream loaches) and Nemacheilidae (stone loaches).

Of all the Asian fish that lived in my aquarium, none came close to the Clown Loach (Chromobotia macracanthus) in terms of sheer personality. The species was my brother’s selection. Looking back, I wouldn’t disagree with his choice. It has a most striking appearance –  bright red fins, an orange body and three big, black stripes; the kind of coloration that one associates with reef-living fishes. But what really made it stand out was its demeanor. A Clown Loach won’t behave like your ordinary tank resident. There are two categories into which most aquarium fish fall – shy or aggressive. The Clown can be given one all its own – playful.

The species is best kept in groups of 5 to 10. They are long-lived, reaching 15 years or more in captivity. They are also large in size for an aquarium fish, around 30 cm (though wild specimens are said to grow even bigger) and 400 gm. The scientific name Chromobotia macracanthus is a reference to the species’ colour (chromo), family (botia, i.e. soldier loach) and large sub-ocular spines (macracanthus). These razor-sharp spines are protective in nature and common among the members of the soldier loach family. They are kept pressed against the lower part of the eye socket but extended when the fish feels threatened.

The species is endemic to the islands of Indonesia – Sumatra and Borneo, where it inhabits large rivers and streams. A bottom-dweller, the Clown Loach seeks hiding places both in the wild and in captivity, either on the river bed or the tank floor. In their native islands, they follow the monsoon downpours into the floodplains. Here, they have been found living in dark, murky waters. Millions of Clown Loach are captured by Indonesian fishermen for the pet trade. Unfortunately, its great popularity has placed it under some amount of pressure, and the Indonesian government has had to initiate measures to prevent capture and sale of mature fish.

Enthusiasts rave about the fish’s lively nature. Clown Loaches are social creatures, thriving when they are in a shoal. They love exploring their habitat, whether it is the food put into the tank, the branches, pebbles and pots used for decoration, or other denizens. They have a bag of tricks – swimming upside down, playing dead or curling up in a cozy spot. Hardy by nature, they flourish on a variety of food – pellets, bloodworms, plant matter. The species was described by the Dutch doctor and naturalist – Pieter Bleeker, in 1852. He named it Cobitis macracanthus. It was only in 2004 that the fish was renamed Chromobotia macracanthus and placed in a genus all its own.

Image Attribution: The image above is sourced from Wikimedia Commons and shows the illustration of a Clown Loach from Dutch ichthyologist Pieter Bleeker’s ‘Fishes of the Indian Archipelago’. Posted as a medical officer of the Royal Netherlands East Indies Army in Indonesia (1842-1860), Bleeker used to collect specimens from local fishermen. After his return to the Netherlands he published his monumental Atlas Ichthyologique des Indes Orientales Néerlandaises, featuring over 1,500 illustrations in 36 volumes. This particular image was published by Zoologische Mededelingen.