Evolution of the acoustic startle response of Mexican cavefish. Academic Article uri icon


  • The ability to detect threatening stimuli and initiate an escape response is essential for survival and under stringent evolutionary pressure. In diverse fish species, acoustic stimuli activate Mauthner neurons, which initiate a C-start escape response. This reflexive behavior is highly conserved across aquatic species and provides a model for investigating the neural mechanism underlying the evolution of escape behavior. Here, we characterize evolved differences in the C-start response between populations of the Mexican cavefish, Astyanax mexicanus. Cave populations of A. mexicanus inhabit an environment devoid of light and macroscopic predators, resulting in evolved differences in various morphological and behavioral traits. We find that the C-start is present in river-dwelling surface fish and multiple populations of cavefish, but that response kinematics and probability differ between populations. The Pachn population of cavefish exhibits an increased response probability, a slower response latency and speed, and reduction of the maximum bend angle, revealing evolved differences between surface and cave populations. Analysis of the responses of two other independently evolved populations of cavefish, revealed the repeated evolution of reduced angular speed. Investigation of surface-cave hybrids reveals a correlation between angular speed and peak angle, suggesting these two kinematic characteristics are related at the genetic or functional levels. Together, these findings provide support for the use of A. mexicanus as a model to investigate the evolution of escape behavior.

published proceedings

  • J Exp Zool B Mol Dev Evol

altmetric score

  • 43.75

author list (cited authors)

  • Paz, A., McDole, B., Kowalko, J. E., Duboue, E. R., & Keene, A. C.

citation count

  • 10

complete list of authors

  • Paz, Alexandra||McDole, Brittnee||Kowalko, Johanna E||Duboue, Erik R||Keene, Alex C

publication date

  • November 2020