Mechanisms of pigmentation loss in subterranean fishes

Vanessa Felice Maria Aparecida Visconti Eleonora Trajano About the authors

Troglobitic (exclusively subterranean) organisms usually present, among their apomorphies related to the subterranean life (troglomorphisms), the regression of eyes and melanic pigmentation. The degree of regression varies among species, from a slight reduction to the complete loss of eyes and dark pigmentation, without a taxonomic correlation. While mechanisms of eye reduction have been intensively investigated in some troglobites such as the Mexican blind tetra characins, genus Astyanax, and the European salamander, Proteus anguinus, few studies have focused on pigmentation. The Brazilian subterranean ichthyofauna distinguishes not only by the species richness (23 troglobitic fishes so far known) but also by the variation in the degree of reduction of eyes and pigmentation. This study focused on Brazilian fishes completely devoid of melanic pigmentation: the characiform Stygichthys typhlops (Characidae) and the siluriforms Ancistrus formoso (Loricariidae), Rhamdiopsis sp.1 (Heptapteridae; from caves in the Chapada Diamantina, Bahia) and Rhamdiopsis sp. 2 (cave in Campo Formoso, Bahia). In order to investigate if such depigmentation is the result of blockage in some step in the melanogenesis, in vitro tests of administration of L-DOPA were done, using caudal-fin fragments extracted from living fish. Except for Rhamdiopsis sp. 2, all the studied species were DOPA(+), i.e., melanin was synthesized after L-DOPA administration. This indicates these fish do have melanophores but they are unable to convert L-tyrosine to L-DOPA. On the other hand, Rhamdiopsis sp. 2, like the albino specimens of Trichomycterus itacarambiensis previously studied (which correspond to one third of the population), are DOPA(-), either because the block of melanin synthesis occurs downstream in melanogenesis, which is probably the case with T. itacarambiensis (monogenic system in view of the phenotypic discontinuity), or because the so-called albinos do no possess melanophores. The physiological loss in the ability to synthesize melanin, apparently caused by different genetic processes in DOPA(+) and in DOPA(-) fishes, may co-exist in subterranean populations with a decrease in the density of melanophores, as observed in the pigmented two thirds of T. itacarambiensis population, a morphological reduction apparently controlled by polygenic systems producing a continuous phenotypic variation.

Caves; Physiology of pigmentation; Character regression; Melanocytes; Troglobites; Brazil


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