A Consideration of Fishless Karsts

If you examine a map of the karst areas of the world it is quickly obvious that there are major areas of limestones in which no subterranean fishes have ever been collected. And in all cases this is not because the areas are remote and unexplored. On the contrary, most are very well known and have been explored for many years. So it is possible that there are in fact no subterraean fishes within these areas. If this is so we need to consider explanations for this absence. The following discusion is by no means comprehensive and the explanations by no means conclusive but this is an initial exploration of such explanations. Comments very welcome.

The following karst areas have no known troglobitic fishes

Florida, USA

Florida has an extensive network of, mostly, phreatic caves (Upchurch et al. (2018) and over 200 species freshwater fishes (Robins et al. 2018). It also has a long history of cave diving exploration of  its flooded caves including some world class penetrations and major diving expeditions carried out by world class cave divers. Despite this abundace of potential habitat space, species as potential colonists and extensive observation, no troglobitic species have ever been collected or even seen.

Fishes have been observed in caves in Florida. Marshall (1947) reported on the cyprinid Notropis harperi in streams and rivers emerging from the many vauclusian risings and from caves in Florida. This species was also studied by Hubbs and Crowe (1956), Relyea  and Sutton (1972, 1973) and Brockman and Bartone (1977). Howell (1960) made a thorough study of the variability and habitats of this species. Relyea and Sutton (1973) record  Yellow Bullhead, Ictalurus natalis, in two caves in Alachua County Florida, Bat Cave and Martin’s Cave, both of which are 12 km from the nearest surface drainage. Adults and juveniles are present in both locations and appear to feed successfully as they are healthy and not emaciated. The presence of juveniles so far from a surface water supply suggests that the animals breed in the cave. There are a number of anatomical abnormalities in the fishes, primarily the absence of any of pelvic, caudal and adipose fins. This may be because of inbreeding in a small, closed population. Relyea and Sutton suggest that this species is preadapted to cave life because it has an elaborate chemo-sensory system. Taking all of these points together there is a very strong suggestion that these populations are stygophilic. Streever (1992) records the death of a large number of yellow bullheads at the Peacock Springs Cave System in Suwanee County, Florida. Whether these animals are also troglophilic is not known. This is the limit of what we know about subterranean fishes in Florida.

The absence of troglobitic fishes cannot be so simple as too little time or the fact that Florida was covered by sea water at xxxx. It has a documented subterranean fauna including  24 aquatic troglobites in 627 caves (Hobbs 2012). This includes 10 troblobitic crayfishes in two genera (Hobbs 1974, Hobbs, Hobbs and Daniel 1977, Walsh 2001, Crandall and De Grave 2017).

If, for whatever reason, freshwater fishes have found it impossible, or undesirable, to colonise the Florida subsurface what about colonisation from the sea? There seems no reason why this should not be a possibility. The Bahamas and Cuba, both no more that 400km from Florida, have 2 and 4 species respectively, all in the marine Family Bythitidae. And marine incursion onto the peninsula should not, in principle, have impeeded this. However, again, this seems not to have happened and we are left with the enigma of a fishless Florida.

Franz, Bauer and Morris (1994)

California, USA

Elliott et al. (2018)

Guadalupes, USA

Has 1 aquatic troglobite in 1300 caves (area 43000km2) (Hobbs 2012). Hobbs (2012) reports that this region is arid and this probably explains the very small number of aquatic troglobites and the absence of fishes.

The Dinaric karst, Slovenia and Croatia

The Dinaric karst is one of the most important areas on Earth for subterranean biodiversity (Culver and Sket 2000Sket 1997, Sket 2004, Sket 2005, Sket 2012, Sket, Paragamian and Trontelj 2004) and is home to one of the most iconic of all subterranean animals, the Olm, Proteus anguinus (Amphibia: Proteidae). But there are no troglobitic fishes. A first, and probably simplistic, explanation for the absence of fishes is comptetion from Proteus for scarce resources. 

Mulu, Sarawak, Malaysia

Chapman (1980), Chapman (1982), Chapman (1985), Despain (2005), Waltham and Despain (2012), Moulds et al. (2013)

The Nullarbor Plane, Australia

Lowry and Jennings (1974), Holmes et al. (2001)Grodzicki (1985), Gillieson (2004), James, Contos and Barnes (2005), James, Contos and Barnes (2012), Unmack (2001), Unmack (2013), Unmack et al. (2011), Morgan et al. (2014).



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