How blind cavefish survive a low-oxygen environment

UC biologists discover another novel adaptation in extraordinary fish

Cavefish have obvious adaptations such as missing eyes and pale colors that demonstrate how they evolved over millennia in a dark, subterranean world.

Now researchers at the University of Cincinnati say these incredible fish have an equally remarkable physiology that helps them cope with a low-oxygen environment that would kill other species.

Biologists in UC’s College of Arts and Sciences found that Mexican cavefish produce more hemoglobin through red blood cells that are much larger compared to those of surface-dwelling fish. Hemoglobin helps the body transport oxygen and carbon dioxide between a fish’s cells and organs and its gills.

The study was published in the Nature journal Scientific Reports. It demonstrates how much more there is to learn about animals that have intrigued biologists for 200 years.

“I’ve been fascinated by these fish for a long time,” UC associate professor Joshua Gross said.

UC student Tyler Boggs and UC associate professor Joshua Gross, shown here in their lab, have new studies coming out on Mexican blind cave fish.

UC associate professor Joshua Gross talks about the surprising adaptations he and his students found in Mexican blind cavefish they study in his biology lab. Photo/Andrew Higley/UC Creative + Brand

Cavefish evolved in caverns around the world. The species UC biologists examined, Astyanax mexicanus, diverged as recently as 20,000 years ago from surface fish still found in nearby streams in Sierra de El Abra, Mexico.

Cavefish are pale pink and nearly translucent compared to their silvery counterparts on the surface. While cavefish have the faintest outline of vestigial eye sockets, the surface tetras have enormous round eyes that give them a perpetually surprised expression.

Despite their many obvious physical differences, the two fish are considered the same species, Gross said.

“Unlike Charles Darwin’s finches in the Galapagos that are separated at the species level, both the cavefish and surface fish are considered members of the same species and can interbreed,” he said.

That makes them a good model system for biologists to study evolutionary and genetic adaptations, Gross said.

It’s a paradox. They’re expending all this energy. Where does it come from?

Tyler Boggs, UC biology student

Gross and his students have learned a lot about these puzzling fish over the years. They found that the fish’s skull is asymmetrical, which could be an adaptation for navigating in a world with no visual cues. And they identified the gene responsible for the fish’s ghostly pallid color. It’s the same gene responsible for red hair in people.

They also observed that cavefish approach potential prey or unusual stimuli from the right side of their bodies while approaching familiar cavefish from the left while socializing.

Scientists elsewhere have reported that cavefish sleep less than surface fish.

For the latest study, Gross and UC biology students Jessica Friedman and Tyler Boggs, the study’s lead author, examined hemoglobin in cavefish blood to see if it might explain how they survive the low-oxygen environment of deep underground caves. The UC study examined cavefish from three populations in Mexican caves called Chica, Tinaja and Pachón.

Graduate students Shane Kaplan and Amanda Powers work with cave fish in their lab.

UC biologists found that Mexican blind cavefish have cardiovascular adaptations to go with obvious external ones like missing eyes and pale colors. Photo/Andrew Higley/UC Creative + Brand

While fast-moving surface streams are saturated with oxygen, cavefish live in deep caverns where standing water lies undisturbed for long periods. Studies have found that some of these standing pools have far less dissolved oxygen than surface waters.

“They move around all the time, but they have little access to nutrition,” Boggs said. “It’s a paradox. They’re expending all this energy. Where does it come from?”

Blood samples revealed that cavefish have more hemoglobin than surface fish. UC researchers assumed that cavefish must have a higher hematocrit — a clinical measure of the relative contribution of red blood cells in whole blood.

Researchers expected to find more red blood cells in cavefish.

“But they were virtually the same,” Gross said. “We couldn’t figure out what was going on.”

UC biologists examined the red blood cells of both fish and found that those of cavefish are significantly larger by comparison. Gross likened them to softballs compared to the baseballs of surface fish.

“That alone is really what explains the differences in hematocrit,” Gross said. “We know very little about the mechanism of cell size in evolution, so this finding is something we could capitalize on to gain insight into how animals evolve elevated hemoglobin capacity.”

Gross said the elevated hemoglobin might allow cavefish to forage longer in the low-oxygen environment. Cavefish often have to work harder to find limited food available in the caves.

UC student Tyler Boggs and UC associate professor Joshua Gross, shown here in their lab, have new studies coming out on Mexican blind cave fish.

UC College of Arts and Sciences student Tyler Boggs demonstrates how he examines red blood cells in Mexican blind cavefish. UC's latest study revealed surprising adaptations. Photo/Andrew Higley/UC Creative + Brand

Boggs said scientists are very interested in how fish draw oxygen from the water. Because of climate change and human development, marine systems are seeing more ecological disasters such as red tides, algae blooms that create low-oxygen environments that often lead to massive fish kills.

“There is a lot of ecological relevance here,” he said. “It’s happening in freshwater environments, saltwater environments. Researchers are trying to call attention to this awful issue.”

The study has potential clinical relevance, too, Boggs said.

“Maintaining cell size and hemoglobin regulation is vital to an efficient circulatory system,” Boggs said.

Altering cell size can lead to medical issues such as anemia.

“I don’t think cavefish experience this, which is impressive to me,” Boggs said.

Featured image at top: Mexican blind cavefish lost their eyes and developed pale colors over thousands of years of evolution in their subterranean world. Photo/Andrew Higley/UC Creative + Brand

UC student Tyler Boggs and UC associate professor Joshua Gross, shown here in their lab, have new studies coming out on Mexican blind cave fish.

UC associate professor Joshua Gross, left and UC student Tyler Boggs examined evolutionary adaptations of Mexican blind cavefish for a study published in Scientific Reports. Photo/Andrew Higley/UC Creative + Brand

UC student Tyler Boggs and UC associate professor Joshua Gross, shown here in their lab, have new studies coming out on Mexican blind cave fish.

UC College of Arts and Sciences student Tyler Boggs discovered surprising adaptations in Mexican blind cavefish that help them survive in the low-oxygen environment of the still pools where they live deep underground. Photo/Andrew Higley/UC Creative + Brand

UC student Tyler Boggs and UC associate professor Joshua Gross, shown here in their lab, have new studies coming out on Mexican blind cave fish.

UC associate professor Joshua Gross peers through a microscope in his biology lab. Photo/Andrew Higley/UC Creative + Brand

UC student Tyler Boggs and UC associate professor Joshua Gross, shown here in their lab, have new studies coming out on Mexican blind cave fish.

UC biology student Tyler Boggs was lead author of a study on Mexican blind cavefish published in the journal Scientific Reports. Photo/Andrew Higley/UC Creative + Brand

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