Popular Science Monthly/Volume 57/May 1900/The Structure of Blind Fishes

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THE Color of the Amblyopsidæ.—The three species of Chologaster are colored, with varying intensity, from C. cornutus, which is darkest, to C. Agassizii, in which the color is faintest. The color cells are in all cases arranged in a definite pattern. These are determined by the underlying muscles. The pattern consists of three longitudinal bands on the sides, following the line where the muscle segments are angularly bent, and cross-stripes along the line separating successive segments.

The general color of Typhlichthys is cream and pink. It is abundantly pigmented. In younger specimens the pigment is arranged in more definite areas about the head. In the old it is more uniformly distributed, being, however, specially abundant about the brain. The pigment pattern of the body is precisely as in Chologaster, except that the individual pigment cells are minute and their aggregate not evident except under the lens.

The retention of the color pattern of Chologaster in Typhlichthys is not less interesting than the retention of similar habits. It is perhaps due to different causes. The color pattern in Chologaster is determined by the underlying muscular structure, and the retention of a similar pattern in Typhlichthys is due to the same underlying structure, rather than to the direct hereditary transmission of the color pattern.

Amblyopsis is flesh-colored, ranging to purple in the gill region, where the blood of the gills shows through the overlying structures, and over the liver, which can be seen through the translucent sides and ventral wall. About the head and bases of the fins the color is yellowish, resembling diluted blood. The surface of the body is slightly iridescent, and the surface of the head has a velvety, peach-bloom appearance.

The general pink color of Amblyopsis is due to the blood. It is not due to any abnormal development of blood-vessels in the dermis. In the fins, where the blood-vessels are near the surface, the general effect is a yellowish color. The surface vessels of the dermis also appear yellowish. It is only on account of the translucent condition of all the tissues, permitting the deeper vessels to show through a certain thickness, that the pink effect is produced. Amblyopsis has always been spoken of as white. The term "white aquatic ghosts" of Cope is very apt, for they do appear white in the caves, and their gliding motion has an uncanny effect. All alcoholic specimens are white.

The pigment cells can not be made to show themselves, even by a prolonged stay in the light. The old, if kept in the light, will not become darker, and a young one reared in the light until ten months old not only showed no increase in the pigmentation but lost the pigment it had at birth, taking on the exact pigmentless coloration of the adult. Pigment cells are late in appearing in Amblyopsis. When the young are two months old pigment is abundant. This pigmented condition is evidently a hereditarily

PSM V57 D059 Chologaster agassizii from cedar sinks cave kentucky.png
Fig. 1.Chologaster Agassizii from Cedar Sinks Cave, Kentucky.

transmitted condition. It disappears with age. Primarily this disappearance was probably individual. But, 'as in the flounder, the depigmentation has also become hereditarily transmitted, for even those individuals reared in the light lose the color. Numerous facts and experiments show that while pigment may be, and is, developed in total darkness, the amount of color in an individual animal depends, other things equal, directly on the amount of light to which it is habitually exposed.

The lower and upper surfaces of the flounder, the one protected and the other exposed to the light, give the most striking example, and the argument is clinched here by the fact, noted by Cunningham, that a flounder whose lower side is for long periods exposed to the light takes on color. Loeb has shown that in the yolk sacs of Fundulus embryos more pigment cells are developed if the embryos are kept in the light than when they are kept in the dark. However, in the body, and especially in the eye, the pigmentation was not affected by the absence of light.

The general absence of color in cave animals is conceded. Packard states, "As regards change of color, we do not recall an exception to the general rule that all cave animals are either colorless

PSM V57 D060 Chologaster papilliferus from illinois.png
Fig. 2.Chologaster papilliferus from Illinois.

or nearly white, or, as in the case of Arachnida and insects, much paler than their out-of-door relatives." Chilton has made the same observation on the underground animals of New Zealand. Similar observations have been recorded by Lönnberg, Carpenter, Schmeil, and Viré. Hamann enumerates a number of species living both in caves and above ground. In such cases the underground individuals are paler than the others. This confirms similar observations by Packard.

Poulton has mentioned that Proteus becomes darker when exposed to the light. This has been verified by others. Typhlotriton larvæ living at the entrance of a cave are dark, while the adult living farther in the cave are much lighter, but with many chromatophores containing a small amount of color. Epigæan

PSM V57 D060 Typhlichthys subterraneus.png
Fig. 3.Typhlicthys subterraneus.

fishes found in caves are always lighter in color than their confrères outside.

We have thus numerous examples of colored epigæan animals bleaching in caves, and also bleached cave animals turning dark when exposed to the light. We have also animals in which the side habitually turned to the dark is colorless, while the side habitually turned to the light is colored. Finally, we have cave animals that are permanently bleached. Natural selection can not have affected the coloration of the cave forms, for it can be absolutely of no consequence whether a cave species is white or black. It could affect the coloration only indirectly in one of two ways: First, as a matter of economy, but since the individual is in part bleached by the direct effect of the

PSM V57 D061 Three views of amblyopsys.png
Fig. 4 a, b, c.—Three views of Amblyopsis.

darkness there is no reason why natural selection should come into play at all in reducing the pigment as a matter of economy; second, Romanes has supposed that the color decreases through the selection of correlated structures—a supposition he found scarcely conceivable when the variety of animals showing the bleached condition is considered.

Panmixia can not account for the reduction of the color, since it returns in some species when they are exposed to the light, and disappears to a certain extent in others when kept in the dark. Panmixia, Romanes thinks, may have helped to discharge the color. In many instances the coloration is a protective adaptation, and therefore maintained by selection. Panmixia might in such instances lower the general average to what has been termed the "birth mean." Proteus is perhaps such an instance. But in this species the bleached condition has not yet been hereditarily established, and since each individual is independently affected "the main cause of change must have been of that direct order which we understand by the term climatic."

Since, however, the bleached condition, which in the first instance is an individual reaction to the absence of light, has become hereditarily established in Amblyopsis so that the bleaching goes on even when the young are reared in the light, it is evident that in Amblyopsis we have the direct effect of the environment on the individual hereditarily established.

The Eyes of the Amblyopsidæ.—The structure of the eyes has formed the basis of a separate, fully illustrated paper.[1] The prominent features in the eyes of the various species must, however, be known before the question of the origin of these forms and the causes of degeneration can be seriously considered. The eyes of the species of Chologaster are normally formed, possessing a lens, pupil, vitreous body, retina, and optic nerve, and all the eye muscles normal to the fishes. The eyes are functional. The retina is, however, very much simplified. The eye of papilliferus is, in this respect, more perfect than the eye of cornutus. In papilliferus the outer nuclear layer consists of two series of nuclei, the inner layer of about five series of nuclei, and the ganglionic layer of a complete single layer of nuclei except where the optic fibers pass between them, for an optic-fiber layer is not present. In Chologaster cornutus the outer nuclear layer has been reduced to one or two series, and the ganglionic layer to cells widely separated from each other or in rows and little groups, but no longer forming a complete layer. In Amblyopsis and Typhlichthys the largest eyes are not more than one twentieth the diameter of those of Chologaster, or one thousandth of their bulk; the lens is nearly, if not quite, obliterated; the same is true of the vitreous body and the optic nerve in the adult. Beyond this the eyes differ much. In Amblyopsis scleral cartilages are present and prominent, the pigmented layer is prominent, the outer and inner nuclear layers form one layer only, two or three cells deep. In T. subterraneus the pigmented layer is insignificant, and no pigment is ever found in it, while the outer and inner nuclear layers are still separate. In both these species the ganglionic layer forms a central core of cells. In Amblyopsis several or all the eye muscles are present; in Typhlichthys nothing is left of them.

Scleral cartilages are not present in Chologaster or Typhlichthys; in Troglichthys they are very prominent, sometimes several times as long as the eye. While there is no pigment left in Typhlichthys, there is in Troglichthys. The eye in the former is about 0.168 millimetre in diameter, while the entire eye of the latter is but about 0.050 millimetre, or less than one third the diameter, and less than one ninth the bulk.

The entire eye of Troglichthys is smaller than many single cells, and I shall be pardoned for not going into the details of its structure here.

The Tactile Organs.—The tactile organs are among the most important in the consideration of the blind forms. Their minute structure will form the basis of a separate paper. The prominent tactile organs about the head of Amblyopsis have been mentioned

PSM V57 D063 Views of an ambyopsis head showing the tactile ridges.png
Fig. 5.—Three views of the head of an Amblyopsis, prepared to show the tactile ridges.

by nearly every writer, and they have been figured by Putnam Wyman[2] and Leidig,[3] but the figures of the distribution of the ridges are worthless. The description of Professor Forbes[4] of Chologaster papilliferus is the only systematic enumeration of the ridges that has appeared. The accompanying figures, drawn by me with the camera lucida, and verified and copied by Mr. U. O. Cox, give the exact extent and position of the ridges in Amblyopsis and Chologaster papilliferus. It will be seen that in the number and distribution of the tactile area the two forms agree very closely, the eyed form having the same number and distribution of ridges or rows that the blind forms have. In Chologaster papilliferus most of the ridges are much less prominent than in the blind species, being sunk into the skin. About the nose and chin, however, the ridges are as prominent as in the other species. In the small Chologaster cornutus there are no distinct ridges at all, the tactile organs being arranged as in other species of fishes. In specimens of the same size the papillæ PSM V57 D064 Chologaster papilliferus with the tactile ridges.pngFig. 6.—Snout of Chologaster papilliferus to show the tactile ridges. are not more prominent in papilliferus than in cornutus. It is only in the oldest of papilliferus that the papillæ become prominent. The number of individual papillae in each tactile ridge differs considerably with age (size), so that an exact comparison between the large Amblyopsis and the much smaller species of Chologaster and Typhlichthys can not be made. From a number of counts made by Professor Cox I take the liberty of giving the following: Ridge No. 6 contains, in Chologaster papilliferus, six organs; in Typhlichthys, eleven; in two specimens of Amblyopsis, respectively eighty-three and one hundred and six inches long, twelve and twenty.

Aside from the tactile organs in ridges, there are many solitary ones not evident from the surface in Amblyopsis. When the epidermis is removed by maceration, the dermal papillæ on which these rest give the whole head a velvety appearance.

In the young, at least of Amblyopsis, each of the tactile organ of the ridges is provided with a club-shaped filament abruptly pointed near the end. They wave about with the slightest motion in water, and are so numerous as to give the whole head a woolly appearance.

To recapitulate the facts ascertained concerning the eye and tactile organs:

1. The eyes were degenerating and the tactile organs developing beyond the normal before the permanent underground existence began.

2. The eyes continued to degenerate and the tactile organs to increase after permanent entrance to underground waters.

3. In the degeneration of the eye the retina leads; the vitreous body and lens follow; the more passive pigmented layer and sclera remain longest; the bony orbit is not affected.

Bearing of the Facts gained on the Origin of the Cave Fauna.—The origin of the cave fauna and of the blind fauna are two distinct questions. This was first recognized by H. Garman. Before, the two questions were considered as one, and two explanations are prominent among those suggesting its solution:

1. The explanation of Lankester seems either a pleasantry or the most unwarranted speculation. He says: "Supposing a number of some species of Arthropod or fish to be swept into a cavern or to be carried from less to greater depths in the sea, those individuals with perfect eyes would follow the glimmer of light, and eventually escape to the outer air or the shallower depths, leaving behind those with imperfect eyes to breed in the dark place. A natural selection would thus be effected. In every succeeding generation this would be the case, and even those with weak but still seeing eyes would in the course of time escape, until only a pure race of eyeless or blind animals would be left in the cavern or deep sea."

This process does not, of course, account for the degeneration of the eye beyond blindness. But, aside from this objection, the humor of his "glimmer of light" impresses itself very forcibly on one after spending a day in following the devious windings of a living cave, not to mention his tendency in cave animals, which are negatively heliotropic, to follow it. There are other objections.

PSM V57 D065 Lateral view of amblyopsis showing location of tactile ridges.png
Fig. 7.—Lateral view of Amblyopsis, showing the location of the tactile ridges.

Fishes are annually swept into the caves, but they are not able to establish themselves in them. To do this they must have peculiar habits, special methods of feeding and mating before a successful colonization of caverns can become successful. Further, if the origin of the cave fauna is due to accident, the accident must have happened to four species out of six of the Amblyopsidæ, while none of the numerous other species of fishes about the caves met with the same accident.

2. The second explanation is that of Herbert Spencer:[5] "The existence of these blind cave animals can be accounted for only by supposing their remote ancestors began making excursions into the caves, and, finding it profitable, extended them, generation after generation, farther in, undergoing the required adaptations little by little."

This second view has been modified by H. Garman in so far as he supposes the adaptations to do without eyes and consequent degeneration of eyes to occur anywhere where a species has no use

PSM V57 D066 Lateral view of chologaster papilliferus showing location of tactile ridges.png
Fig. 8.—Lateral view of Chologaster papilliferus, showing the location of the tactile ridges.

for eyes, enumerating burrowing animals and parasitic animals, concluding that "the origin of the cave species (nonaquatic especially) of Kentucky were probably already adjusted to a life in the earth before the caves were formed." In this modified sense, Spencer's view is directly applicable to the Amblyopsidæ. Hamann goes so far as to suppose that darkness itself is not the primary cause of degeneration, but unknown factors in the animal itself.

The three things to be considered in this connection are (a) the habit of the cave form, (b) the modifications to enable the form to do without the use of light, and (c) the structure of the eye as a result of a and b.

a. The prime requisite for a candidate to underground existence is a negative reaction to light. We found that even the epigæan Chologaster is negatively heliotropic.

b. It must also be evident that a fish depending on its sight to procure its food can never become a cave form. Sunfishes, which are annually carried into caves, belong to this class of fishes. They are always poor when found in the caves, and will never be able to establish themselves in them. On the other hand, there are no reasons why fishes detecting their prey either by smell or touch should not be capable of colonizing caves. The catfishes and Amblyopsidæ belong to the latter class. It is surprising that more catfishes have not established themselves in caves. Among the Amblyopsidæ even those with functional eyes depend on touch and vibrations for their food. Chologaster has well-developed tactile organs and poor eyes. It is found chiefly at the mouths of underground streams, but also in the underground streams themselves. The tactile organs are not different in kind from those of other fishes, and their high development is not more marked than their development in the barbels of the catfishes. The characters which distinguish Chologaster as a fish capable of securing its food in the dark are emphasized in Typhlichthys, and the tactile organs are still more highly developed in Amblyopsis. The eyes of the last two genera are so degenerate that it is needless in this connection to speak of degrees of degeneration. On account of the structure of their eyes and their loss of protective pigment they are incapable of existence in open waters. With the partial and total adaptation to an underground existence in the Amblyopsidæ and their negative reaction to light, it is scarcely possible that for this family the idea of accidental colonization can be entertained for a moment. Their structure is not as much due to their habitat as their habitat is to their structure and habit.

Typhlogobius lives in the holes of shrimps under rocks on the coast of southern California. It is a living example of the origin of blind forms in dark places remote from caves. Here again the "accidental" idea is preposterous, since no fish could by accident be carried into the devious windings of the burrows they inhabit. Moreover, a number of related species of gobies occur in the neighborhood. They live ordinarily in the open, but always retreat into the burrows of crustaceans when disturbed. The origin of the blind species by the gradual change from an occasional burrow seeker to a permanent dweller in the dark and the consequent degeneration of the eye is evident here at once. Among insects the same process and the same results are noted. We have everywhere the connection of diurnal species with dark-loving and blind forms, a transition the result of habit entered into with intent, but no evidence of such a connection as the result of accident. Also numerous instances of daylight species being swept into caves, but no instance of one establishing itself there.

This view accounts also for the wide distribution of the blind fishes. The ancestry of the Amblyopsidæ we may assume to have had a tendency to seek dark places wherever found, and incipient blind forms would thus arise over their entire distribution. The structural differences between Troglichthys and Typhlichthys argue in favor of this, and certainly the fearless, conspicuous blind fish as at present developed would have no chance of surviving in the open water. Their wide distribution after their present characters had been assumed, except through subterranean waters, would be out of the question entirely. The same would not be true of the incipient cave forms when they had reached the stage at present found in Chologaster. It will be recalled that Chologaster, and even the blind forms, have the habit of hiding underneath boards and in the darker sides of an aquarium. These dark-seeking creatures would, on the other hand, be especially well fitted to become distributed in caves throughout their habitat. S. Garman's able argument for the single origin and dispersal of the blind fishes through epigsean waters was based on the supposition that the cis-Mississippi and trans-Mississippi forms were identical. The differences between these species are such as to warrant not only that they have been independently segregated, but that they are descended from different genera. The external differences between these species are trifling, but this was to be expected in an environment where all the elements that make for external color marking are lacking. The similarity between Typhlichthys and Amblyopsis is so great that the former has been considered to be the young of the latter.

Judging from the structure of the eye and the color of the skin, Troglichthys has been longest established in caves. Amblyopsis came next, and Typhlichthys is a later addition to the blind cave fauna.


"Those," said Dr. J. N. Langley, in his sectional address on Physiology at the British Association, "who have occasion to enter into the depths of what is oddly, if generously, called the literature of a scientific subject, alone know the difficulty of emerging with an unsoured disposition. The multitudinous facts presented by each corner of Nature form in large part the scientific man's burden to-day, and restrict him more and more, willy nilly, to a narrower and narrower specialism. But that is not the whole of his burden. Much that he is forced to read consists of records of defective experiments, confused statement of results, wearisome description of detail, and unnecessarily protracted discussion of unnecessary hypotheses. The publication of such matter is a serious injury to the man of science; it absorbs the scanty funds of his libraries, and steals away his poor hours of leisure."
  1. Archiv f. Entwiekelungsmechanik, viii, pp. 545-617, Plates XI-XV.
  2. American Naturalist, 1872, Plate II, Figs. 1 and 2.
  3. Untersuchungen z. Anatomie und Histologie d. Tiere, Plate III, Fig. 28.
  4. American Naturalist, 16, 1882, p. 2.
  5. Popular Science Monthly, vol. xliii, pp. 487, 488.