How the Blind Cave Fish Lost Its Eyes

by Joseph Bennington-Castro

Pictured above is a very peculiar fish that lives in a few North American caves. It looks very much like other fish, except in one respect: it has no eyes. The story of its adaptation to life in pitch blackness is one of the weirdest stories in evolutionary history.

Mutations vs. Cryptic Variation:

When people think about how evolution occurs, the classical model generally comes to mind. According to this view, species experience random genetic mutations that confer novel traits when they move to a new environment. The most beneficial traits — those that help individuals better adapt to their new habitat — get passed along to subsequent generations and eventually spread throughout the population.

It’s a relatively simple, easy-to-digest model, but it’s not able to explain all cases of evolution. “Imagine if you had a quick change in the environment,” said Nicolas Rohner, a geneticist at Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts. “This evolutionary process would take too long.” To rapidly adapt to a sudden shift in environment, a population would have to have some kind of standing genetic variation already available, which nature then selects for.

But how can this “cryptic variation” be maintained and accumulate in a species without actually affecting individuals before the environmental shift occurs? Scientists proposed that something must keep the genetic variation silent under normal conditions; then, when a species relocates to a new, life-threatening environment, it becomes physiologically stressed and that silencing mechanism stops or breaks down somehow…

(read more: io9)

photos: Rohner et al., Science.

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