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Ambastaia nigrolineata (KOTTELAT & CHU, 1987)

Black-Lined Loach

SynonymsTop ↑

Botia nigrolineata Kottelat & Chu, 1987;Yasuhikotakia nigrolineata (Kottelat & Chu, 1987)


From the Latin nigro, meaning ‘to be black’, and lineatus, meaning ‘lined’, in reference to the colour pattern on the body of this species.


Order: Cypriniformes Family: Botiidae


Described from the Lancang Jiang (Lancang River – the Chinese name for the Mekong River) close to the settlement of Menghanzhen, Xishuangbanna Prefecture, Yunnan province, southern China.

It’s subsequently been recorded from parts of the Mekong drainage in northern Laos plus the Nan River, a tributary of the Chao Phraya in northern Thailand. In the latter country it’s considered endangered and features in the national Red Book of threatened species.


The type locality is described as a ‘small creek with sandy bottom and moderate current’ and this species has also been recorded from stretches of riffles in clear water plus other stream habitats.

We’ve been unable to establish if it enters main river channels at certain times of year as with most other members of the genus which undergo annual migrations as part of their life histories.

Xishuangbanna has a relatively consistent, tropical monsoon climate with just two clearly-defined seasons and average air temperatures of 64.4 – 71.6°F/18 – 22°C while further south in its range temperatures are warmer still.

In the upper Xe Bang Fai river basin, Laos, it co-occurs alongside numerous other species including Garra cambodgiensis, Hampala macrolepidota, Mystacoleucus marginatus, Poropuntius laoensis, Tor laterivittatus, Annamia normani, Balitora lancangjiangensis, Homalopteroides smithi, Homaloptera yunnanensis, Nemacheilus platiceps, Schistura sp., Syncrossus sp., Glyptothorax lampris, Papuligobius ocellatus, and Mastacembelus armatus.

Maximum Standard Length

70 – 80 mm.

Aquarium SizeTop ↑

For long-term maintenance an aquarium with base measurements of 90 cm x 30 cm or equivalent should be the smallest considered.


All botiids need a well-structured set-up although the actual choice of décor is more-or-less down to personal taste.

A natural-style arrangement could include a substrate of sand or fine gravel with lots of smooth, water-worn rocks and pebbles plus driftwood roots and branches.

Lighting can be relatively subdued and plants able to grow in such conditions like Microsorum pteropus (Java fern), Taxiphyllum barbieri (‘Java’ moss) or Anubias spp. can be added if you wish. These have an added benefit as they can be attached to pieces of décor in such a way as to provide useful shade.

Otherwise be sure to provide plenty of cover as Ambastaia spp. are inquisitive and seems to enjoy exploring their surroundings. Rocks, wood, flower pots and aquarium ornaments can be used in whichever combination to achieve the desired effect.

Bear in mind that they like to squeeze themselves into small gaps and crevices so items with sharp edges should be omitted, and any gaps or holes small enough for a fish to become trapped should be filled in with aquarium-grade silicone sealant. A tightly-fitting cover is also essential as these loaches do jump at times.

Although botiids don’t require turbulent conditions they do best when the water is well-oxygenated with a degree of flow, are intolerant to accumulation of organic wastes and requires spotless water in order to thrive.

For these reasons they should never be introduced to biologically immature set-ups and adapt most readily to stable, mature aquaria. In terms of maintenance weekly water changes of 30-50% tank volume should be considered routine.

Water Conditions

Temperature: This species is said to tolerate relatively low temperatures but for general care a range of 20 – 25 °C is recommended.

pH6.5 – 7.5

Hardness90 – 268 ppm


While Ambastaia spp. appear to be chiefly carnivorous by nature they will also eat vegetative matter if available, often including soft-leaved aquatic plants.

They’re largely unfussy feeders but must be offered a varied diet comprising quality dried products, live or frozen bloodwormTubifexArtemia, etc., plus fresh fruit and vegetables such as cucumber, melon, blanched spinach, or courgette.

Home-made foods using a mixture of natural ingredients and bound with gelatin are also highly recommended.

Chopped earthworm can also provide a useful source of protein but should be used sparingly, and while most botiids also prey on aquatic snails though should never be considered the answer to an infestation since they’re not obligate molluscivores.

Once settled into an aquarium they’re bold feeders and often rise into midwater at meal times.

Behaviour and CompatibilityTop ↑

This species is quite mild in temperament and can make an excellent community addition. That said slow-moving or long-finned fishes are best omitted with active, pelagic cyprinids such as many Devario, Rasbora, ‘Puntius‘, and some Danio spp. representing more suitable tankmates.

It’s also proven to coexist peacefully with the majority of Botia spp. and in very large tanks, Chromobotia macracanthus, but not the more aggressive botiids such as Syncrossus or mostYasuhikotakia spp.

Some cobitid and nemacheilid loaches are also possibilities as are members of Epalzeorhynchos, Crossocheilus, and Garra and many catfishes. As always, thorough research prior to selecting a community of fishes is the best way to avoid potential problems.

Ambastaia spp. are gregarious, form complex social hierarchies and should be maintained in groups of at least 5 or 6 specimens, preferably 10 or more.

When kept singly they can become withdrawn or even aggressive towards similarly-shaped fishes, and if only a pair or trio are purchased the dominant individual can stress the other(s) to the extent that they stop feeding.

That said they seemingly require regular contact with conspecifics, a fact exemplied by a number of behavioural rituals which have been recorded consistently in aquaria (see ‘Notes’).

Sexual Dimorphism

Sexually mature females are normally fuller-bodied and grow a little larger than males, while adult males develop slightly elongated snouts plus noticeably fleshy, thickened lips.



NotesTop ↑

This specie is relatively rare in the aquarium trade and much sought after by enthusiasts as a result.

It looks similar to its only congener A. sidthimunki but according to the original description by Kottelat and Chu (1987) can be told apart by colour patterning which uniquely consists of a solid dark lateral stripe and another running along the dorsal mid-line.

A. sidthimunki differs by possessing two dorsal stripes anterior to the dorsal-fin and none behind, though in reality some specimens do have what could be described as a stripe posterior to the dorsal-fin which is usually broken by pale, saddle-like markings.

In adult A. sidthimunki there are numerous transverse, vertical bars connecting the two stripes and extending to the ventral surface; these may also be present in A. nigrolineata but are much less prominent and normally only extend the full distance between the stripes in the rear portion of the body.

The genus Ambastaia was erected by Kottelat (2012) to accommodate these two species which are former members of both Botia and Yasuhikotakia. 

Members are currently diagnosed from other botiids solely on the basis of adult colour pattern and its ontogeny, the former comprising a whitish-yellowish background with a black midlateral stripe on each flank and an additional, middorsal stripe, with vertical bars connecting these two stripes and extending onto the lower portion of the body.

The family Botiidae has been widely considered a genetically distinct grouping since Nalbant (2002), having previously been considered a subfamily (Botiinae) of the family Cobitidae. Nalbant also moved some previous members of Botia into the new genus Yasuhikotakia based on a number of morphological characters.

Later Kottelat (2004) made further modifications to the taxonomy, raising Chromobotia for B. macracanthus and confirming that species previously included in the genus Hymenophysa should instead be referred to Syncrossus.

The former alteration was based on colour pattern plus some morphological characters and the latter because Hymenophysa not only represents a spelling mistake (McClelland’s original spelling was Hymenphysa) but is a junior synonym of Botia.

As a result of these works the family Botiidae is thus divided into two tribes within which Botia appears to be the most basal lineage:

Tribe Leptobotiini – LeptobotiaParabotiaSinibotia.
Tribe Botiini – AmbastaiaBotiaChromobotiaSyncrossusYasuhikotakia.

Phylogenetic studies by Tang et al. (2005) and Šlechtová et al. (2006) have largely confirmed this system to be correct although the latter disagreed with the placement of Sinibotia, finding it to be more closely related to the tribe Botiini.

Ambastaia nigrolineata and A. sidthimunki were found to be more closely-related to both Sinibotia and Syncrossus than Yasuhikotakia, despite being considered members of the latter at the time. Šlechtová et al. also proposed the use of subfamily names under the following system:

Subfamily Leptobotiinae – LeptobotiaParabotia.
Subfamily Botiinae – BotiaChromobotiaSinibotiaSyncrossusYasuhikotakia.

Within these Botia appears to be the basal, i.e., most ancient, lineage and in a more-detailed phylogenetic analysis Šlechtová et al. (2007) confirmed the validity of the family Botiidae with the genera listed above as members rather then being grouped into subfamilies. This more recent, simpler system is the one we currently follow here on SF.

Some behavioural routines exhibited by Ambastaia spp. have been recorded often enough that they’ve been assigned non-scientific terms for ease of reference.

For example during dominance battles (these occur most frequently when the fish have been introduced to a new tank, or new individuals added to an existing group) the protagonists normally lose much of their body patterning and colouration, a phenomenon that’s come to be known as ‘greying out’.

Such displays will sometimes also happen within an established group as individuals seek to improve social ranking but are usually nothing to worry about.

Interestingly some observations suggest that the character of the highest-ranked, or alpha, fish appears to affect that of the whole group though it must be said that scientific studies of botiid loach behaviour are virtually non-existent.

It certainly seems that they display a degree of ‘personality’ with some specimens being naturally bolder or more aggressive than others, for example. The alpha is normally the largest specimen within the group and often female.

‘Shadowing’ is an interesting behaviour in which younger individuals swim flank-to-flank with older, mimicking their every movement. Some keepers report that more than one smaller fish may shadow a larger simultaneously, with even three or four on each side!

The reason for it is unknown; it may relate to a group staying in touch with one another when rivers swell during times of flooding, perhaps reducing drag by swimming ‘in formation’ or having some other communicative function.

It’s been observed in aquaria with both high and low water flow and seems to be habitual to the extent whereby some individuals will shadow other fishes if no conspecifics are present.

Sound also appears to be an important factor in communication since these loaches are able to produce audible clicking sounds, these increasing in volume when the fish are excited. The behavioural aspects of this phenomenon remain largely unstudied but the sounds are thought to be produced by grinding of the pharyngeal (throat) teeth or subocular spines.

A further curiosity is the so-called ‘loachy dance’ which involves an entire group swimming in a constant, restless fashion around the sides of the tank, usually utilising the full length and height.

The reasons for this are unknown and reports as to when it occurs vary but the most common triggers appear to be the addition of food, fresh water or new conspecifics, and it can last anything from a few minutes to a day or more.

Botiids also often settle at peculiar angles, wedged vertically or sideways between items of décor, or even lying flat on the substrate. This is no cause for alarm and appears to be a natural resting behaviour.

Ambastaia spp. also possess sharp, motile, sub-ocular spines which are normally concealed within a pouch of skin but erected when an individual is stressed, e.g., if removed from the water. Care is therefore necessary as these can become entangled in aquarium nets and those of larger specimens can break human skin.

Botiids are also susceptible to a condition commonly referred to as ‘skinny disease’ and characterised by a loss of weight. This is especially common in newly-imported specimens and is thought to be caused by a species of the flagellate genus Spironucleus.

It’s treatable although the recommended medication varies depending on country. Hobbyists in the UK tend to use the antibiotic Levamisole and those in the United States Fenbendazole (aka Panacur).


  1. Kottelat, M. and X. Chu, 1987 - Zoological Research 8(4): 393-400
    The botiine loaches (Osteichthyes: Cobitidae) of the Lancangjiang (Upper Mekong) with description of a new species.
  2. Arthainsee, A., T. Leamkom, A. Jutagate, and S. Chundum, 2010 - Journal of Agricultural Technology 6(4): 761-766
    Genetic variation of five species of Yasuhikotakia in Thailand using AFLP.
  3. Kottelat, M., 1998 - Ichthyological Exploration of Freshwaters 9(1): 1-128
    Fishes of the Nam Theun and Xe Bangfai basins, Laos, with diagnoses of twenty-two new species (Teleostei: Cyprinidae, Balitoridae, Cobitidae, Coiidae and Odontobutidae).
  4. Kottelat, M., 2001 - WHT Publications, Colombo: 1-198
    Fishes of Laos.
  5. Kottelat, M., 2004 - Zootaxa 401: 1-18
    Botia kubotai, a new species of loach (Teleostei: Cobitidae) from the Ataran River basin (Myanmar), with comments on botiinae nomenclature and diagnosis of a new genus.
  6. Kottelat, M., 2012 - Raffles Bulletin of Zoology Supplement 26: 1-199
    Conspectus cobitidum: an inventory of the loaches of the world (Teleostei: Cypriniformes: Cobitoidei).
  7. Nalbant, T. T., 2002 - Travaux du Museum d'Histoire Naturelle 'Grigore Antipa' 44: 309-333
    Sixty million years of evolution. Part one: family Botiidae (Pisces: Ostariophysi: Cobitoidea).
  8. Nalbant, T. T., 2004 - Travaux du Museum d'Histoire Naturelle 'Grigore Antipa' 47: 269-277
    Hymenphysa, Hymenophysa, Syncrossus, Chromobotia and other problems in the systematics of Botiidae. A reply to Maurice Kottelat.
  9. Taki, Y. and A. Doi, 1995 - Japanese Journal of Ichthyology 42(2): 147-155
    Two new species of the cobitid genus Botia from the Lao Mekong Basin.
  10. Tang, Q., B. Xiong, X. Yang, and H. Liu, 2005 - Hydrobiologia 544(1): 249-258
    Phylogeny of the East Asian botiine loaches (Cypriniformes, Botiidae) inferred from mitochondrial cytochrome b gene sequences.
  11. Tang, Q., H. Liu, R. Mayden, and B. Xiong, 2006 - Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 39(2): 347-357
    Comparison of evolutionary rates in the mitochondrial DNA cytochrome b gene and control region and their implications for phylogeny of the Cobitoidea (Teleostei: Cypriniformes).
  12. Šlechtová, V., J. Bohlen, and H. H. Tan, 2007 - Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 44(3): 1358-1365
    Families of Cobitoidea (Teleostei; Cypriniformes) as revealed from nuclear genetic data and the position of the mysterious genera Barbucca, Psilorhynchus, Serpenticobitis and Vaillantella.
  13. Šlechtová, V., J. Bohlen, J. Freyhof, and P. Ráb, 2006 - Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 39(2): 529-541
    Molecular phylogeny of the Southeast Asian freshwater fish family Botiidae (Teleostei: Cobitoidea) and the origin of polyploidy in their evolution.

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