Regressive evolution in the Mexican cave tetra, Astyanax mexicanus

Curr Biol. 2007 Mar 6;17(5):452-4. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2007.01.051. Epub 2007 Feb 15.


The evolutionary forces driving the reduction of eyes and pigmentation in cave-adapted animals are unknown; Darwin famously questioned the role of natural selection in eye loss in cave fishes: "As it is difficult to imagine that eyes, although useless, could be in any way injurious to animals living in darkness, I attribute their loss wholly to disuse"[1]. We studied the genetics of eye and pigmentation regression in the Mexican cave tetra, Astyanax mexicanus, by mapping and quantitative trait loci (QTL) analysis. We also mapped QTL for the putatively constructive traits of jaw size, tooth number, and numbers of taste buds. The data suggest that eyes and pigmentation regressed through different mechanisms. Cave alleles at every eye or lens QTL we detected caused size reductions, consistent with evolution by natural selection but not with drift. QTL polarities for melanophore number were mixed, however, consistent with genetic drift. Arguments against a role for selection in the regression of cave-fish eyes cited the insignificant cost of their development [2, 3], but we argue that the energetic cost of their maintenance is sufficiently high for eyes to be detrimental in the cave environment. Regression can be caused either by selection or drift.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biological Evolution*
  • Eye / growth & development*
  • Fishes / anatomy & histology
  • Fishes / genetics*
  • Gene Expression Regulation, Developmental
  • Genetic Drift*
  • Pigmentation / genetics*
  • Quantitative Trait Loci
  • Selection, Genetic*