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Fat Fishes in Food-Limited Locations?

By Erin Loury, FISHBIO
09/14/15 -- Food can be hard to come by for fish in harsh environments, such as the dark isolation of freshwater caves. Because caves are typically devoid of light, plants of any kind are limited or absent. Furthermore, the aquatic organisms that would eat these plants or algae, including insects and crustaceans, can also be very scarce. If fishes inside caves can't scrounge up dinner at home, they must rely on a delivery coming from elsewhere. Most of the food that finds its way to these fishes is "allochthonous," or derived from outside the waterway. Nutrients often come from nearby terrestrial sources, such as bat guano, decomposing animals, or terrestrial insects. This allochthonous food supply is rarely consistent, and may only be available during pulses in seasonal flow or from other transitory events (Aspiras et al. 2015, Yang et al. 2008).

Mexican Cave Dwelling fish photo by H. Zell, FISHBIO
Blind Mexican cave fish have something in common with Dolly Varden trout. Both are binge eaters. Photo by H. Zell courtesy of FISHBIO

Fishes living in these food-limited environments have developed interesting coping mechanisms to deal with the challenges of food scarcity. One such example is the binge-eating blind Mexican cavefish, Astyanax mexicanus, the focus of a recent study in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (Aspiras et al. 2015). More than 170 species of cave-dwelling freshwater fish species, known as "troglobites," are found throughout the world (Soares and Niemiller 2013). The Mexican cavefish occurs in two forms: one that lives in surface rivers, and a blind, albino form that lives in caves. Considering their limited food supply, it might seem surprising that the cave form of Astyanax mexicanus can be fatter than its surface-dwelling conspecifics. But scientists from Harvard University and New York University discovered that cavefish from Tinaja, Mexico, have a greater appetite than their surface counterparts and pack on the fat by binge eating (Aspiras et al. 2015).

Despite their increased liver size and liver lipids, these fat fishes do not appear to suffer from health problems normally associated with obesity. However, the scientists discovered that the cave-dwelling fish had mutations in a protein called the melanocortin 4 receptor (MC4R), which is also associated with obesity in humans (Aspiras et al. 2015). A normally functioning MC4R protein is responsible for sending signals to the body that it is full, and to cease feeding (Walley et al. 2009). However, mutations in this receptor appear to cause binge eating, which helps the cavefish bulk up when food is present and withstand fasting periods when food is scarce (Aspiras et al. 2015).

Surprisingly, these are not the only fish that harbor a binge-eating propensity. Scientists have also found this trait in Dolly Varden (Salvelinus malma) in the Alec River of Alaska (Armstrong and Bond 2013). The Dolly Varden gorge themselves primarily on sockeye salmon eggs for a five-week period, during which time they obtain most of their energy for the whole year. These fish then put their digestive system on hold by absorbing or shrinking their guts and liver to compensate for the lack of food during other times of the year. Hopefully, none of these overeating fishes will make their way into California rivers. With the population of non-native striped bass already capable of consuming every juvenile salmon migrating out of the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers, (Loboschefsky et al. 2012), the last thing native fishes need is a binge eater in town.

FISHBIO is a dedicated group of research scientists, engineers, and technicians that specialize in counting, tracking, and analyzing trends in fish and wildlife populations throughout the world. An expert staff, technical capacity, and state-of-the-art equipment make FISHBIO a trailblazer in aquatic research. For more information, please visit

Fishing Reports

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Art work by Isabella Langaman
By Don Webster
Disregard the story’s title. I don’t really have a “first” name. If I did, it would probably be something like Leviathan or Behemoth or maybe Lunker. Officially, I’m a trout. A brown trout. A giant, brown trout. Possibly the biggest, fattest...Full Story
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Scouting Deerheart Lake, photo by Phil Akers
Article and photos by Phil “Flip” Akers
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Let’s check out the Upper Sac
Lake Siskiyou with Mt. Shasta standing sentinel. photo by Phil Akers
Article and photos by Phil "Flip" Akers
09/06/15 -- The Upper Sacramento River – The Upper Sac – begins at Lake Siskiyou’s Box Canyon Dam and continues ~37 miles downstream to Lake Shasta. It is a classic freestone river born from the Mt. Shasta and Mt. Eddy... Full Story
How to make Tuscan Tuna Salad with Fennel By Frank Galusha
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german brown trout in Modoc creek.
By Lea Huetteman
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Throw the kitchen sink at them
Indian Paintbrush is a favorite wildflower that carpets wilderness landscapes. Phil Flip Akers,
Article and photos by Phil Akers
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Woodley Island Marina, Humboldt Bay, Eureka, California
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Pulled into the pipes: Green Sturgeon
green sturgeon
By Erin Loury, FISHBIO
03/04/14 -- [Posted with permission of FISHBIO] Living in the Sacramento River can be a risky business for juvenile green sturgeon (Acipenser medirostris). The young fish must swim through a gauntlet of water... Full Story
Not Just Any Fish
California Golden Trout, California Heritage Trout Challenge, Not Just Any Fish, Phil
By Phil "Flip" Akers
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