A diver has made an unusual discovery in an inaccessible underground cave system in Southern Germany: a population of Europe’s first documented cave fish. The pale coloured loach of the genus Barbatula is thought to have diverged from surface fish around 16,000 to 20,000 years ago, following the retreat of ice age glaciers.
“The cave fish was found surprisingly far in the north in Southern Germany,” said project leader Jasminca Behrmann-Godel of the University of Konstanz in Germany, lead author on a newly-published study in Current Biology. “This is spectacular as it was believed before that the Pleistocene glaciations had prevented fish from colonizing subterranean habitats so far north.”
The loach is Europe’s first reported cave fish, discovered in 2015 by diver Joachim Kreiselmaier in the hard-to-reach Danube-Aach karst cave system, which drains into the River Rhine. “It was only when the glaciers retreated that the system first became a suitable habitat for fish. They must have moved there at some point following the end of the Würm glacial period, no more than 20,000 years ago and seemingly from the Danube.” said Arne Nolte from the University of Oldenburg/Max-Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology in Plön, Germany.
In evolutionary terms, the loaches’ adaptation to pitch-black underground cave life has been extremely rapid, occurring over the course of a few thousand years. “Their eyes are much smaller than in other fish, almost as if they were curved inwards and their colouring has almost disappeared. The fish have elongated barbels on their heads, and their nostrils are larger than those of their cousins who live closer to the surface,” explains Jörg Freyhof from the Leibniz Institute for Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries (IGB) Berlin.
The cave system where loach populations were found was sealed for hundreds of thousands of years until the end of the last ice age, when glaciers retreated northwards to leave a new opening, known as the Aach Spring. It is through this spring that a loach population is likely to have entered the underground cave system from surface waters, becoming isolated and taking on new evolutionary paths.
The caves are notoriously difficult for divers to access, requiring dry spells which make the underground water system calm and clear enough for exploration. “No more than 30 divers have ever reached the place where the fish have been found,” diver Joachim Kreiselmaier said. “Due to the usually bad visibility, strong current, cold temperature, a labyrinth at the entrance most divers do not come back again for diving.”
Over 2015 and 2016, Kreiselmaier brought back five live loach specimens for Behrmann-Godel to analyse. Based on morphological and genetic comparisons to surface fish caught upstream and downstream of the cave, the researchers report that the cave loaches are indeed an isolated population and the first known European cave fish.
North America and China are known hotspots for cave dwelling fish, but the discovery of the underground loach populations in Southern Germany suggests that cave fish distributions may be wider than previously thought. For project leader Jasminca Behrmann-Godel, the loaches’ rapid evolutionary adaptation suggests that similar populations may be found in Europe in the future, “Cavefish could exist virtually everywhere in principle, and there’s no good reason to expect long evolution times for them to adapt to cave environments.”
The discovery indicates that some underground cave ecosystems may be more complex and nutrient-rich than previously thought, allowing them to support such permanent fish populations. It is also a reminder that the conservation of underground aquatic ecosystems – for example through reducing diffuse pollution and water abstraction – is of crucial importance, not only for species we already know about, but potentially those that are yet to be discovered.
Research will continue into the loaches’ genetic, genomic and behavioural characteristics, which may provide unique insights into the traits of a species in the ‘early’ stages of evolution. For Jörg Freyhof, the discovery is a reminder that “the wonders of nature can turn up anywhere, even in your own backyard.”