Cavefish lose sleep

Cave-dwelling fish sleep less than their open-water relatives, challenging the idea that variation in sleep patterns is driven by cognition and brain function

By | April 7, 2011

Why animals sleep has long puzzled scientists, although many studies suggest benefits to brain function, memory and learning. But linkurl:research; published online today in Current Biology reports that three distinct populations of cavefish sleep dramatically less than their open-water relatives, suggesting that sleep is not a cognitive necessity but an ecological adaptation to the specific environment of a population.
A cave variety in front of two open water varieties of the Mexican tetra, Astyanax mexicanus
Image: Courtesy of Richard Borowsky
"This study is the first to show that cavefish may have dramatic reductions in sleep," wrote linkurl:William Jeffery,; an evolutionary and developmental biologist at the University of Maryland who was not involved in the research. The findings suggest that sleeplessness has "significance for survival in the cave environment." The Mexican tetra is a freshwater fish known mostly for its blind cave variety, although populations also exist in open water. The blind cavefish have evolved many adaptations to cope with their dark environment, including increased sensory perception, and have lost traits that are presumably only beneficial in lit environments, such as sight (and even eyes) and pigmentation. These evolutionary trends have been identified in thirty distinct populations of cave-dwelling tetras, suggesting that the changes are directly linked to the unusual environment. Evolutionary neurobiologist Erik Duboué of New York University and his colleagues generated sleep profiles of three distinct populations of cavefish and one population of open-water fish to quantify how long and when the fish slept. While open-water fish averaged over 800 minutes of sleep each day, the cavefish populations only slept for 110 to 250 minutes. "I was not surprised that they slept less, but I was surprised that the phenotype was so robust," said Duboué. By breeding the cave populations with the surface populations, the researchers were able to explore the genetic basis for this difference in sleep patterns. Unlike genes underlying other cave-specific features, sleeplessness appeared to be a dominant trait determined by only a few genes. "[It's] an unusual genetic pattern," said paper author and evolutionary biologist linkurl:Richard Borowsky; of New York University. "It shows that selection is extremely powerful for loss of sleep when you're in a cave." The selective pressures that drive cavefish to sleep less, however, are still unclear, though the new findings seem to suggest that the behavioral change has little to do with brain function, said linkurl:Jerry Siegel,; the director of the University of Los Angeles's Center for Sleep Research. The fact that these three populations evolved this sleepless behavior independently supports the idea the change in their environment is the driving force. "Evolution can really fine-tune sleep for ecological need," Siegel said. "This doesn't mean that sleep doesn't have other functions," he added. Sleep may very well affect cognition, but that may not be the dominant function driving its evolution. He considers sleep as kind of a daily hibernation, a way to significantly reduce energy use without risking being eaten or not getting enough to eat -- and cavefish may not have that luxury. Cavefish are the top predators in their habitats, so sleeping would not make them more vulnerable to predation. But the relative paucity of food resources in caves, where there is no photosynthesis, could be at the root of the fish's stunted sleep patterns, Borowsky said. "If you're asleep when this little morsel of food floats by, you don't get to eat it," he explained. When food is really scarce, "an awake fish will have higher fitness." E.R. Duboué et al., "Evolutionary Convergence on Sleep Loss in Cavefish Populations," Current Biology, 21:8, 2011.
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[1st April 2009]


Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 1

April 7, 2011

It is known that at least some species of cave salamanders live very long lives. Studies seemed to indicate that their metabolism has slowed way down due to the scarcity of food.\n\nCould something similar be at work here and was it examined? Could the metabolism of the fish be reduced due to the scarcity of the food and because their metabolism is lowered their bodies don't require the same amount of sleep to stay healthy?
Avatar of: RAY JONES


Posts: 1

April 7, 2011

One theory I like is that sleep originated when animals that were less active at night were less likely to blunder into an "unfortunate situation". Sleep was therefore prosurvival because it helped keep you out of harm's way when you were less effective.\n\nOnly later, when sleep became established, did it provide a sort of "neurological nich" into which new metabolic and information processing functions of the nervous system could evolve.\n\nSince the cave environment varies very little, the fish would have no selective advantage from being inactive at certain times (though they may bring with them some of the new functions that nervous systems evolved to take advantage of sleep and so may need some sleep, even if very little).
Avatar of: Rich patrock

Rich patrock

Posts: 7

April 8, 2011

Cave animals are often products of founders with their effects in hand. The claim that there has been strong selection for lack of sleep does not follow from the article, though perhaps, the author has more significant data.

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