Hearing in Cavefishes

  • Daphne Soares
  • Matthew L. Niemiller
  • Dennis M. Higgs
Part of the Advances in Experimental Medicine and Biology book series (AEMB, volume 877)


Caves and associated subterranean habitats represent some of the harshest environments on Earth, yet many organisms, including fishes, have colonized and thrive in these habitats despite the complete absence of light, and other abiotic and biotic constraints. Over 170 species of fishes are considered obligate subterranean inhabitants (stygobionts) that exhibit some degree of troglomorphy, including degeneration of eyes and reduction in pigmentation. To compensate for lack of vision, many species have evolved constructive changes to non-visual sensory modalities. In this chapter we review hearing in cavefishes, with particular emphasize on our own studies on amblyopsid cavefishes. Hearing in cavefishes has not been well studied to date, as hearing ability has only been examined in four species. Two species show no differences in hearing ability relative to their surface relatives, while the other two species (family Amblyopsidae) exhibit regression in the form of reduced hearing range and reduction in hair cell densities on sensory epithelia. In addition to reviewing our current knowledge on cavefish hearing, we offer suggestions for future avenues of research on cavefish hearing and discuss the influence of Popper and Fay on the field of cavefish bioacoustics.


Acoustic Auditory Evolution Fish Subterranean 



Apart from their enduring contributions to the field of fish sensory biology through published works, extensive reviews, and symposium organization, Drs. Popper and Fay have also had an enduring personal contribution to the careers of most of the researchers in the field of fish acoustic. DH entered the Popper lab as a postdoctoral fellow, despite knowing little about hearing and less about neurophysiology, and was immediately taken under Art’s tutelage. Art not only offered invaluable training in the discipline but also served as a true mentor to DH in all aspects of scientific citizenship and mentoring. DH also owes a tremendous debt to Fay for patiently explaining the most basic principles of neurophysiology as well as being a constantly positive source of review and encouragement in this field. DS is also grateful for the mentoring and support received by Popper throughout the years. Although she was not in the Popper lab, she benefited from “hanging around” during her graduate years.


  1. Culver DC (1976) The evolution of aquatic cave communities. Am Nat 110:945–957CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Culver DC (1982) Cave life: evolution and ecology. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MACrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Culver DC, Pipan T (2009) The biology of caves and other subterranean habitats. Oxford University Press, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  4. Christman and Culver (2001) The relationship between cave biodiversity and available habitat. J Biogeogr 28(3):367–380Google Scholar
  5. Christman MC, Culver DC, MK, White D (2005) Patterns of endemism of the eastern North American cave fauna. J Biogeogr 32(8):1441–1452Google Scholar
  6. Eigenmann CH, Yoder AC (1899) The ear and hearing of the blind fishes. Proc Indiana Acad Sci 1899:242–247Google Scholar
  7. Fay RR, Popper AN (2012) Fish hearing: new perspectives from two “senior” bioacousticians. Brain Behav Evol 792:215–217CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Haspel G, Schwartz A, Streets A, Camacho DE, Soares D (2012) By the teeth of their skin, cavefish find their way. Curr Biol 22:R629–R630PubMedCentralCrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  9. Higgs DM, Radford CA (2012) The contribution of the lateral line to ‘hearing’ in fish. J Exp Biol 216:1484–1490CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  10. Li C, Lu G, Orti G (2008) Optimal data partitioning and a test case for ray-finned fishes (Actinopterygii) based on ten nuclear loci. Systemat Biol 57:519–539Google Scholar
  11. Montgomery JC, Coombs S, Baker CF (2001) The mechanosensory lateral line system of the hypogean form of Astyanax fasciatus. Environ Biol Fishes 62:87–96CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Niemiller ML, Fitzpatrick BM, Miller BT (2008) Recent divergence-with-gene-flow in Tennessee cave salamanders (Plethodontidae: Gyrinophilus) inferred from gene genealogies. Mol Ecol 17:2258–2275Google Scholar
  13. Niemiller ML, Poulson TL (2010) Studies of the amblyopsidae: past, present, and future. In: Trajano E, Bichuette ME, Kapoor BG (eds) The biology of subterranean fishes. Science Publishers, Enfield, NH, pp 169–280CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Patton P, Windsor S, Coombs S (2010) Active wall following by Mexican blind cavefish (Astyanax mexicanus). J Comp Physiol A Neuroethol Sens Neural Behav Physiol 196:853–867CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  15. Popper AN (1970) Auditory capacities of the Mexican blind cave fish (Astyanax jordani) and its eyed ancestor (Astyanax mexicanus). Anim Behav 18:552–562CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Popper AN, Fay RR (1973) Sound production and processing by teleost fishes: a critical review. J Acoust Soc Am 53:1515–1529CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  17. Popper AN, Fay RR (1993) Sound detection and processing by fish: critical review and major research questions. Brain Behav Evol 41:14–38CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  18. Popper AN, Fay RR (1997) Evolution of the ear and hearing: issues and questions. Brain Behav Evol 50:213–221CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  19. Popper AN, Schilt CR (2008) Hearing and acoustic behavior: basic and applied considerations. In: Webb JF, Fay RR, Popper AN (eds) Fish bioacoustics. Springer, New York, pp 17–48CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Popper AN, Ramcharitar JU, Campana SE (2005) Why otoliths? Insights from inner ear physiology and fisheries biology. Mar Freshw Res 56:497–504CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Poulson TL (1963) Cave adaptation in amblyopsid fishes. Am Midl Nat 70:257–290CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Poulson T, White W (1969) The cave environment. Science 165:971–981Google Scholar
  23. Proudlove GS (2006) Subterranean fishes of the world: an account of the subterranean (hypogean) fishes described to 2003 with a bibliography 1541–2004. International Society for Subterranean Biology, MoulisGoogle Scholar
  24. Proudlove GS (2010) Biodiversity and distribution of the subterranean fishes of the world. In: Trajano E, Bichuette ME, Kapoor BG (eds) The biology of subterranean fishes. Science Publishers, Enfield, NH, pp 41–63CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Schulz-Mirbach T, Stransky C, Schlickeisen J, Reichenbacher B (2008) Differences in otolith morphologies between surface- and cave-dwelling populations of Poecilia mexicana (Teleostei, Poeciliidae) reflect adaptations to life in an extreme habitat. Evol Ecol Res 10:537–558Google Scholar
  26. Schulz-Mirbach T, Ladich F, Riesch R, Plath M (2010) Otolith morphology and hearing abilities in cave and surface-dwelling ecotypes of the Atlantic molly, Poecilia mexicana (Teleostei: Poeciliidae). Hear Res 267:137–148PubMedCentralCrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  27. Schulz-Mirbach T, Hess M, Plath M (2011a) Inner ear morphology in the Atlantic molly Poecilia mexicana – first detailed microanatomical study of the inner ear of a cyprinodontiform species. PLoS One 6, e27734PubMedCentralCrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  28. Schulz-Mirbach T, Riesch R, Garcia de Leon FJ, Plath M (2011b) Effects of extreme habitat conditions on otolith morphology – a case study on extremophile livebearing fishes (Poecilia mexicana, P. sulphuria). Zoology (Jena) 114:321–334CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Sharma S, Coombs S, Patton P, de Perera T (2009) The function of wall-following behaviors in the Mexican blind cavefish and a sighted relative, the Mexican tetra Astyanax. J Comp Physiol A Neuroethol Sens Neural Behav Physiol 195:225–240CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  30. Soares D, Niemiller ML (2013) Sensory adaptations of fishes to subterranean environments. Bioscience 63:274–283CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Trajano E (1991) Population ecology of Pimelodella kronei, troglobitic catfish from Southeastern Brazil (Siluriformes, Pimelodiae). Environ Biol Fishes 30:407–421CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Trajano E (1997) Population ecology of Trichomycterus itacarambiensis, a cave catfish from eastern Brazil (Siluriformes, Trichomycteridae). Environ Biol Fishes 50:357–369CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Trajano E (2001) Ecology of subterranean fishes: an overview. Environ Biol Fishes 62:133–160CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Williams PW, Ford DC (2006) Global distribution of carbonate rocks. Zeitschrift für Geomorphologie 147 (suppl.): 1–2Google Scholar
  35. Windsor SP, Tan D, Montgomery JC (2008) Swimming kinematics and hydrodynamic imaging in the blind Mexican cave fish (Astyanax fasciatus). J Exp Biol 211:2950–2959CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  36. Yoshizawa M, Goricki S, Soares D, Jeffery WR (2010) Evolution of a behavioral shift mediated by superficial neuromasts helps cavefish find food in darkness. Curr Biol 20:1631–1636PubMedCentralCrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  • Daphne Soares
    • 1
  • Matthew L. Niemiller
    • 2
  • Dennis M. Higgs
    • 3
  1. 1.Biological SciencesNew Jersey Institute of TechnologyNewarkUSA
  2. 2.Illinois Natural History SurveyUniversity of IllinoisChampaignUSA
  3. 3.Biological SciencesUniversity of WindsorWindsorCanada

Personalised recommendations