Amblyopsis spelaea

DeKay 1842

Amblyopsis spelaea
Redrawn by Rhian Kendall from Ginet and Decu (1977)



The specific name was originally spelt spelaeus but was corrected to spelaea by Woods and Inger (1957).




Holotype: an individual approximately  85mm long. The location of this specimen (originally in the “Cabinet of the Lyceum”) is unknown and no other types were assigned. The most important definition of this species is given by Woods and Inger (1957:244 245). This is the type species by monotypy of the cave restricted genus Amblyopsis.


Type locality: Mammoth Cave, Kentucky, USA (37o10’N, 85o55’W). Found in caves and springs on the Crawford and Mammoth Cave uplands and the Mitchell Plain, southward of the Ohio River (Chakrabarty et al. 2014). Originally thought to be also distributed north of the Ohio River in Indiana this is not now the case and the Indiana cave fishes are a separate species, Amblyopsis hoosieri (Chakrabarty et al. 2014). A survey of the species in Kentucky was conducted by Keith (1988) and he found 17 sites in Kentucky with this species. In Mammoth Cave this species coexists with Typhlichthys subterraneus. [Romero and Bennis (1998) record this species from “about 2500 caves in Kentucky". This figure is clearly in error].


Inhabits cool (8-17oC) hypogean streams which have mixed mud/rock substrates in shoals, and mixed sand/silt substrates in pools (Burr and Warren, 1986:219). The preferred habitat of this species in Mammoth Cave is in deep base level rivers fed by Sinkhole Plain drainage and with a low food supply (Poulson 1961, 1963 and pers. comm.). Barr and Kuehne (1971) provide details of the habitat within Mammoth Cave. Compson (2004) used an isotopic study to show that T. subterraneaus, and probably also Amblyopsis spelaea, is a top predator within the cave ecosystem (see also Helf and Olson 2017).


There are nine known and named taxa in the Family Amblyopsidae. Of these six are subterranean fishes with the usual troglomorphic characters of reduced eyes and pigment and permanent subterranean existence, and three are epigean fishes with normal eyes and pigment. Recent molecular and morphological evidence produced by Hart et al. (in press) demonstrates that the relationship between these hypogean and epigean fishes is not simple. There are four major clades within the Family:

1. Typhlichthys subterraneus and Typhlichthys eigenmanni are sister species and sister to this pair is Speoplatyrhinus poulsoni.  However, T. subterraneus is quite clearly divided into two subgroups, one of which is closer to T. eigenmanni than it is to the other group of T. subterraneus. The only way to read the cladogram for this group is that it consists of three taxa, one of which is currently un-named. This clade are all subterranean fishes.

2. Two of the epigean fishes, Forbesichthys papilliferus and Forbesichthys agassizii, are sister to each other and their sister is the hypogean species Amblyopsis spelaea.

The two remaining clades contain one species each but their relationships to the other six species is ambiguous:

3a. Sister to the above groups is epigean Chologaster cornuta with hypogean Troglichthys rosae sister to all other taxa.

3b. Sister to the above groups is hypogean Troglichthys rosae with epigean Chologaster cornuta sister to all other taxa.

Given the fact that the distribution of Chologaster cornuta is very far from the distributions of the other taxa 3b seems the most parsimonious explanation. Amblyopsis hoosieri is not included in the paper of Hart et al. (in press) but one would expect it to be in group 2 above based on geography.

This analysis does not take into account the ten possible cryptic taxa, currently subsumed within Typhlichthys subterraneus, identified by Graening, Fenolio and Slay (2011), Niemiller et al. (2013) and Hart, Burress and Armbruster (2016).

Conservation Status

MuG [NT:3.1:2014]

(NatureServe 2014. Amblyopsis spelaea. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2014: Downloaded on 10 July 2017).

V (Miller 1977); SC (Branson 1981); SC (Burr and Warren 1986:219); Threatened (Williams, Johnson, Hendrickson, Contreras-Balderas, Williams., Navarro-Mendoza, McAllister and Deacon 1989), V (IUCN 1988, 1990, 1993); VU D2 (IUCN 1996, 2000), G3 (NatureServe 2002).

Museum Holdings

CM, FMNH, IU, UMMZ, NPS (Woods and Inger 1957:244); BMNH, plus many other museums in the USA.

Key References

DeKay, J.E. Book 1842 Zoology of New York or the New York Fauna; comprising detailed descriptions of all the animals hitherto observed within the state of New York, with brief notices of those occasionally found nearb its borders, and accompanied by appropriate illustrations.
Wyman, J. Journal Article 1843 Description of a blind-fish from a cave in Kentucky
Wyman, J. Journal Article 1843 Description of a blind-fish from a cave in Kentucky
Thompson, W. Journal Article 1844 Notice of the blind-fish, crayfish and insects from the Mammoth Cave, Kentucky
Tellkampf, T. G. Journal Article 1844 Beschreibung einiger neuer in der Mammuth-Hohle in Kentucky aufgefundenes Gattungen von Gliederthieren
Tellkampf, T. G. Journal Article 1844 Ueber den blinden Fisch der Mammuth-Hohle in Kentucky, mit Bemerkungen ueber einige undere in dieser Hohle lebenden Thiere
Tellkampf, T. G. Journal Article 1845 Memoirs on the blind-fishes and some other animals living in the Mammoth Cave in Kentucky
Wyman, J. Journal Article 1850 On the blind-fish of the Mammoth Cave
Wyman, J. Journal Article 1853 On the eye and the organ of hearing in the blind-fish (Amblyopsis spelaeus DeKay) of the Mammoth Cave
Wyman, J. Journal Article 1854 On the eye and the organ of hearing in the blind fishes (Amblyopsis spelaeus DeKay) of the Mammoth Cave
Wyman, J. Journal Article 1872 Notes and drawings of the rudimentary eyes, brain and tactile organs of Amblyopsis spelaeus
Ramsey, E. Journal Article 1901 The optic lobes and optic tracts of Amblyopsis spelaeus DeKay
Cox, U. O. Journal Article 1905 A revision of the cave fishes of North America
Payne, F. Journal Article 1907 The reactions of the blind fish, Amblyopsis spelaeus, to light
Ramsey, E. C. Book Section 1909 The brain of Amblyopsis
Payne, F. Book Section 1909 Does Amblyopsis "hear" ?
Eigenmann, C. H. Book 1909 Cave vertebrates of America, a study in degenerative evolution
Woods, L. P. and Inger, R. F. Journal Article 1957 The cave, spring and swamp fishes of the family Amblyopsidae of central and eastern United States
Poulson, T.L. Thesis 1961 Cave adaptation in Amblyopsid fishes
Rosen, D. E. Journal Article 1962 Comments on the relationships of the North American cave fishes of the family Amblyopsidae
Barr, T.C. and Kuehne, R.A. Journal Article 1962 The cavefish Amblyopsis spelaea in northern Kentucky
Clay, W.M. Book 1962 A field manual of Kentucky fishes
Poulson, T. L. Journal Article 1963 Cave adaptation in Amblyopsid fishes
Poulson, T. L. Journal Article 1964 Life history and the control of population size in Amblyopsid fishes
Barr, T. C. Journal Article 1967 Ecological studies in the Mammoth Cave System of Kentucky. I.The biota
Poulson, T. L. Journal Article 1969 Population size, density and regulation in cave fishes
Barr, T.C. and Kuehne, R.A. Journal Article 1971 Ecological studies in the Mammoth Cave System of Kentucky. II. The Ecosystem
Welch, N. M. Thesis 1972 Movement and ecology of the blind cave fish Amblyopsis spelaea
Welch, N. M. and Keith, J. H. Journal Article 1974 Report on the occurence of the blindfish Amblyopsis spelaea DeKay in selected caves of the Hoosier National Forest
Clay, W.M. Book 1975 The fishes of Kentucky
Kalayil, P.K. and Clay, W.M. Journal Article 1976 Immumological characteristics and relationships of tissue antigens in Amblyopsid fishes
Swofford, D.L. Thesis 1976 Genetic variability, population differentiation and biochemical relationships in the family Amblyopsidae
Nickol, B. B. and Whittaker, F. H. Journal Article 1978 Neoechinorhynchus cylindratus (Acanthocephala) from the troglodytic fish, Amblyopsis spelaea, in Kentucky
Whittaker, F.H. and Zober, S.J. Journal Article 1978 Proteocephalus poulsoni new species, Cestoda Proteocephalidae from the northern cavefish Amblyopsis spelaea (Pisces, Amblyopsidae) of Kentucky, USA
Keith, J. H. and Gray, L. M. Journal Article 1979 A preliminary study of the occurence of broken-back syndrome in the northern cave-fish (Amblyopsis spelaea) at Spring Mill State Park, Mitchell, Indiana
Cooper, J.E. Book Section 1980 Amblyopsis spelaea DeKay Northern cavefish
Swofford, D.L., Branson, B.A. and Sievert, G.A. Journal Article 1980 Genetic differentiation of cavefish populations (Amblyopsidae)
Keith, J. H. and Poulson, T. L. Journal Article 1981 Broken-back syndrome in Amblyopsis spelaea, Donaldson-Twin Cave, Indiana
Bechler, D. L. Journal Article 1981 Behavioral studies on the Amblyopsidae; the cave, spring and swamp fish
Bechler, D. L. Journal Article 1981 Agonistic behaviour in the Amblyopsidae; the cave, spring and swamp fishes
Bechler, D. L. Journal Article 1983 The evolution of agonistic behaviour in Amblyopsid fishes
Poulson, T. L. Journal Article 1985 Evolutionary reduction by neutral mutations: Plausibility arguments and data from Amblyopsid fishes and Linyphiid spiders
Burr, B.M. and Warren, M.L. Journal Article 1986 A distributional atlas of Kentucky fishes
Keith, J. H. Journal Article 1988 Distribution of Northern Cavefish, Amblyopsis spelaea DeKay, in Indiana and Kentucky and reccommendations for its protection
Palunas, M.J. Journal Article 1989 Life histories of the Amblyopsidae with an emphasis on reproductive cycles
Keith, J. H. Journal Article 1989 A report on a field survey to determine the status of the Northern Cavefish (Amblyopsis spelaea DeKay) in Indiana
Keith, J.H. Report 1992 A report on the possible impacts of State Road 37 construction activities on cave fauna and karst features
Bergstrom, D.E., Noltie, D.B. and Holtsford, T.P. Journal Article 1995 Ozark cavefish genetics: The phylogeny of Missouri's Ozark cavefish (Amblyopsis rosae) and southern cavefish (Typhlichthys subterraneus)
Pearson, W.D. and Boston, C.H. Report 1995 Distribution and status of the Northern Cavefish, Amblyopsis spelaea: Final report to the Indiana Department of Natural Resources Division of Fish and Wildlife Program
Bergstrom, D.E. Thesis 1997 The phylogeny and historical biogeography of Missouri's Amblyopsis rosae (Ozark cavefish) and Typhlichthys subterraneus (southern cavefish)
Bergstrom, D.E., Noltie, D.B. and Holtsford, T.P. Book Section 1997 Molecular phylogenetics and historical biogeography of the family Amblyopsidae
Green, S.M. and Romero, A. Journal Article 1997 Responses to light in two blind cave fishes (Amblyopsis spelaea and Typhlichthys subterraneus) (Pisces: Amblyopsidae)
Bergstrom, D.E., Noltie, D.B. and Holtsford, T.P. Journal Article 1998 The phylogeny, historical biogeography, and evolution of troglobitism in Amblyopsis rosae (Ozark cavefish) and Typhlichthys subterraneus (southern cavefish)
Romero, A. and Bennis, L. Journal Article 1998 Threatened fishes of the world: Amblyopsis spelaea De Kay, 1842 (Amblyopsidae)
Poulson, T. Journal Article 2001 Morphological and physiological correlates of evolutionary reduction of metabolic rate among amblyopsid cave fishes
Poly, WJ and Wetzel, JE Journal Article 2003 Transbrachioral spawning: novel reproductive strategy observed for the pirate perch Aphredodereus sayanus (Aphredoderidae)
Poly, W.J. and Proudlove, G.S. Journal Article 2004 Family Amblyopsdae Bonaparte 1846
Compson, Z.G. Thesis 2004 An isotopic examination of cave, spring and epigean trophic structures in Mammoth Cave National Park
Romero, A. and Woodward, J.S. Journal Article 2005 On white fish and black men: Did Stephen Bishop really discover the blind cave fish of Mammoth Cave
Niemiller, M.L. and Poulson, T.L. Book Section 2010 Subterranean fishes of North America: Amblyopsidae
Niemiller, M.L., Higgs, D.M. and Soares, D. Journal Article 2013 Evidence for hearing loss in amblyopsid cavefishes
Niemiller, M.L., McCandless, J.R., Reynolds, R.G., Caddle, J., Near, T.J., Tillquist, C.R., Pearson, W.D. and Fitzpatrick, B.M. Journal Article 2013 Effects of Climatic and Geological Processes during the Pleistocene on the Evolutionary History of the Northern Cavefish, Amblyopsis Spelaea (Teleostei: Amblyopsidae)
Soares, D. Niemiller, M.L. and Higgs, D. Journal Article 2014 Review article. Hearing and acoustic communication in cavefishes
Chakrabarty, P., Prejean, J.A. and Niemiller, M.L. Journal Article 2014 The Hoosier cavefish, a new and endangered species (Amblyopsidae, Amblyopsis) from the caves of southern Indiana
Soares, D., Niemiller, M.L. and Higgs, D.M. Journal Article 2016 Hearing in Cavefishes
Armbruster, J., Niemiller, M.L. and Hart, P.B. Journal Article 2016 Morphological evolution of the cave-, spring-, and swampfishes of the Amblyopsidae
Toomey, R.., Hobbs, H.H. and Olson, R.A. Book Section 2017 An orientation to Mammoth Cave and this volume
White, W.B. and White, E.L. Book Section 2017 Hydrology and hydrogeology of Mammoth Cave
Poulson, T.L. Book Section 2017 Terrestrial cave ecology of the Mammoth Cave region
Helf, K. and Olson, R.A. Book Section 2017 Subsurface aquatic ecology of Mammoth Cave
Culver, D.C. and Hobbs, H.H. Book Section 2017 Biodiversity of Mammoth Cave
Hobbs, H.H., Olson, R., Winkler, E.G. and Culver, D.C. Book 2017 Mammoth Cave: A Human and Natural History
O’Dell, G.A. and George, A.I. Journal Article 2018 The celebrated black explorer Stephen Bishop and Mammoth Cave: Observations by an English journalist in 1853
Trimboli, S.R. and Toomey, R.S. Journal Article 2019 Temperature and reverse-flow patterns of the River Styx, Mammoth Cave, Kentucky
Hart, P.B., Niemiller, M.L., Burress, E.D., Armbruster, J.W., Ludt, W.B. and Chakrabarty, P. Journal Article 2020 Cave-adapted evolution in the North American Amblyopsid fishes Inferred using phylogenomics and geometric morphometrics
Adams, G.L., Burr, B.M. and Warren, M.L. Book Section 2020 Amblyopsidae: Cavefishes