Variable vision in variable environments: the visual system of an invasive cichlid (Cichla monoculus) in Lake Gatun, Panama [RESEARCH ARTICLE]

Daniel Escobar-Camacho, Michele E. R. Pierotti, Viktoria Ferenc, Diana M. T. Sharpe, Erica Ramos, Cesar Martins, and Karen L. Carleton

An adaptive visual system is essential for organisms inhabiting new or changing light environments. The Panama Canal exhibits such variable environments owing to its anthropogenic origin and current human activities. Within the Panama Canal, Lake Gatun harbors several exotic fish species including the invasive peacock bass (Cichla monoculus), a predatory Amazonian cichlid. In this research, through spectral measurements and molecular and physiological experiments, we studied the visual system of C. monoculus and its adaptive capabilities. Our results suggest that (1) Lake Gatun is a highly variable environment, where light transmission changes throughout the canal waterway, and that (2) C. monoculus has several visual adaptations suited for this red-shifted light environment. Cichla monoculus filters short wavelengths (~400 nm) from the environment through its ocular media and tunes its visual sensitivities to the available light through opsin gene expression. More importantly, based on shifts in spectral sensitivities of photoreceptors alone, and on transcriptome analysis, C. monoculus exhibits extreme intraspecific variation in the use of vitamin A1/A2 chromophore in their photoreceptors. Fish living in turbid water had higher proportions of vitamin A2, shifting sensitivities to longer wavelengths, than fish living in clear water. Furthermore, we also found variation in retinal transcriptomes, where fish from turbid and clear waters exhibited differentially expressed genes that vary greatly in their function. We suggest that this phenotypic plasticity has been key in the invasion success of C. monoculus.

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