|Mexican tetra, normal form and blind cave fish|
(De Filippi, 1853)
The Mexican tetra or blind cave fish (Astyanax mexicanus) is a freshwater fish of the family Characidae of the order Characiformes.  The type species of its genus, it is native to the Nearctic ecozone, originating in the lower Rio Grande and the Neueces and Pecos Rivers in Texas, as well as the central and eastern parts of Mexico.
Growing to a maximum overall length of 12 cm (4.7 in), the Mexican tetra is of typical characin shape, with unremarkable, drab coloration. Its blind cave form, however, is notable for having no eyes and being albino, that is, completely devoid of pigmentation; it has a pinkish-white color to its body.
This fish, especially the blind variant, is reasonably popular among aquarists.
A. mexicanus is a peaceful species that spends most of its time in midlevel water above the rocky and sandy bottoms of pools and backwaters of creeks and rivers of its native environment. Coming from a subtropical climate, it prefers water with 6.0–7.8 pH, a hardness of up to 30 dGH, and a temperature range of 20 to 25 °C (68 to 77 °F). In the winter, it migrates to warmer waters. Its natural diet consists of crustaceans, insects, and annelids, although in captivity it is omnivorous.
Blind cave form
A. mexicanus is famous for its blind cave form, which is known by such names as blind cave tetra, blind tetra, and blind cavefish. These forms have lost their sight and even their eyes. These fish can still, however, find their way around by means of their lateral lines, which are highly sensitive to fluctuating water pressure. Currently, 29 cave populations are known, dispersed over three geographically distinct areas in a karst region of northeastern Mexico. Recent studies suggest at least two distinct genetic lineages occur among the blind populations, and the current distribution of populations arose by at least five independent invasions.
The eyed and eyeless forms of A. mexicanus, being members of the same species, are closely related and can interbreed making this species an excellent model organism for examining convergent and parallel evolution, regressive evolution in cave animals, and the genetic basis of regressive traits.
Astyanax jordani, another blind cave fish, is sometimes confused with the cave form of A. mexicanus.
The surface and cave forms of the Mexican tetra have proven powerful subjects for scientists studying evolution. When the surface-dwelling ancestors of current cave populations entered the subterranean environment, the change in ecological conditions rendered their phenotype—which included many biological functions dependent on the presence of light—subject to natural selection and genetic drift. One of the most striking changes to evolve was the loss of eyes. This is referred to as a "regressive trait" because the surface fish that originally colonized caves possessed eyes. In addition to regressive traits, cave forms evolved "constructive traits". In contrast to regressive traits, the purpose or benefit of constructive traits is generally accepted. Active research focuses on the mechanisms driving the evolution of regressive traits, such as the loss of eyes, in A. mexicanus. Recent studies have produced evidence that the mechanism may be direct selection, or indirect selection through antagonistic pleiotropy, rather than genetic drift and neutral mutation, the traditionally favored hypothesis for regressive evolution.
The blind form of the Mexican tetra is different from the surface-dwelling form in a number of ways, including having unpigmented skin, having a better olfactory sense by having taste buds all over its head, and by being able to store four times more energy as fat, allowing it to deal with irregular food supplies more effectively.
Darwin said of sightless fish:
By the time that an animal had reached, after numberless generations, the deepest recesses, disuse will on this view have more or less perfectly obliterated its eyes, and natural selection will often have affected other changes, such as an increase in the length of antennae or palpi, as compensation for blindness.—Charles Darwin, Origin of Species (1859)
Modern genetics has made clear that the lack of use does not, in itself, necessitate a feature's disappearance. In this context, the positive genetic benefits have to be considered, i.e., what advantages are obtained by cave-dwelling tetras by losing their eyes? Possible explanations include:
- Not developing eyes allows the individual more energy for growth and reproduction.
- There remains less chance of accidental damage and infection, since the previously useless and exposed organ is sealed with a flap of protective skin.
- The lack of eyes disables the body clock, which is controlled by periods of light and dark, conserving energy.
Another likely explanation for the loss of its eyes is that of selective neutrality and genetic drift; in the dark environment of the cave, the eyes are neither advantageous nor disadvantageous and thus any genetic factors that might impair the eyes (or their development) can take hold with no consequence on the individual or species. Because there is no selection pressure for sight in this environment, any number of genetic abnormalities that give rise to the damage or loss of eyes could proliferate among the population with no effect on the fitness of the population.
Among some creationists, the cave tetra is seen as evidence 'against' evolution. One argument claims this is an instance of "devolution"—showing an evolutionary trend of decreasing complexity. But evolution is a nondirectional process, and while increased complexity is a common effect, there is no reason why evolution cannot tend towards simplicity if that makes an organism better suited to its environment.
Research by MIT biology professor Susan Lindquist shows that inhibition of the HSP90 protein has a dramatic effect in the development of the blind tetra. This research is seen by creationists as evidence of "built-in adaptability, not slow and gradual evolution."
In the aquarium
The blind cave tetra is a fairly hardy species. Their lack of sight does not hinder their ability to get food. They prefer subdued lighting with a rocky substrate, like gravel, mimicking their natural environment. They become semi-aggressive as they age, and are by nature schooling fish.
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