The Search for Blind Cave Fishes in Guangxi

China, Guangxi Province, 2-4 September 2010

ImageThe invitation for Heiko Bleher to do research in Guangxi came as a surprise shortly after his and Natasha’s daughter Amanda Flora had been born July 15th, 2010. Prof. Chen Zaizhong from the Shanghai Ocean University, Tommy Wong from Hong Kong and the Guangxi Province Fishery Deputy Director Li Jianming had invited him and he wanted to research also the cave fishes as he knew that there are some of the most amazing and unusual blind cypriniform fishes which were only discovered in recent years. In particular one with a biology which should be studied as there is nothing similar known anywhere – except maybe the northern Australian Nurseryfish Kurtus gulliveri. But the latter is not a blind cavefish. Below now some photos of the research and collecting trip…

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The point of departure from, where the field trip started for the research in Guangxi caves was the city of Nanning, capital of Guangxi. The city with its amazing skyline and over 3 million people is also known as the Green city and in Zhuang language it is called Namzningz, meaning ‘South Tranquility’. In the Oriental Hotel Prof. Chen and his student Pan looking over the map and the Deputy Director Li Jianming waiting prepared in a luxurious black Limousine with driver… 

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Not only the city of Nanning can claim to be a Green city, but also the entire Guangxi province is Green and the highways in perfect conditions and planted along very nicely. Our trip into the north-western region was flanked by unique scenery, the autonomous province is very beautiful. The current name “Guang” itself means “expanse”, and has been associated with the region since the creation of Guang Prefecture in 226 AD. In the valleys are giant rice fields.

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The first cave was the limestone cave near Xia’ao town, ca. 24°15’N, 107°05’E, in the Du’an County (also written Du An). Here in 1993 the very first blind fish was found in the Province. It was a loach Protocobitis typhlops. Today the cave lies next to the highway and water is constantly pumped out for the rice and corn fields. The only fish we found was a dead one sucked into the pump… Possibly the blind loach is already history. The fish photo is from Fishbase.org.

 

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The second cave I wanted to research was in one of the pinnacles as I called these amazing green covered mountains sticking everywhere out of the ground. We had to walk over land, into a valley, across cornfields and a chicken farm. But the cave was filled up with garbage and waste. It had a terrible smell the water was foul and hardly any fish could survive here. The chicken farmer said the valley gets flooded some times and everything flows into the cave. When I asked why no one takes the garbage away, I received no answer…  The Barbinae fish from here Sinocyclocheilus jiuxuensis from this Jiuxu cave, near Jiuxi town, 24°32’N, 107°45’E, at an elevation of 220 m was only described in 2003…

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This is the species Sinocyclocheilus jiuxuensis, which lived here and some specimens may still be alive with Mr. Lan, a retired fisheries officer. It is no longer blind, as parts of the cave has become exposed to sunlight some thousands, or millions of years ago and over many hundreds of generations the reverse process started and eyes develop again – came back.

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Our journey up north-west continued to the third cave, but first we stopped on the edge of the large Hongshui River to have dinner – as always with a very large variety of food, delicious but to much, and to much to drink… We stayed over night in Dong Lan, a remote city embedded between high mountains. Early next morning every Chinese was up and doing exercise for half an hour, while the schoolchildren were having a lunch before class, as they come from far. Across Dong Lan flows a river which was full of algae and garbage, but a woman and a man were cleaning it up…
 

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We finally reached the mountain area of the 3rd cave called Dxia Dong (Dong = cave), near the Police station Sanhsiz Baicuzsoj. We had to walk nearly one hour across rice fields into the mountain region and than the cave opened up in front of us. Also here they had a pump station installed to water the rice fields. This was the deepest cave I researched, we had to climb down on slippery rocks and into mud – it was nearly 100 metre deep and completely dark. Two fisherman came with us, brothers, who had collected here before with the root. They tried their luck while I went deep down and fished with my net., while the top was covered with vampires...

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Sinocyclocheilus altishoulderus from this Dxia Cave near Taiping Town, about 24°22’N, 107°22’E, Donglan County, had also reversed eyes, coming from a blind to eye dwelling species which started also to get pigments. Locals say because it has had a connection in the last millenniums with another partly open cave, the 4th we visited (see below)… 

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…the questions remains: why is there still a complete blind cave fish, which has no pigments and an extraordinary head shape (see also notes on Sinocyclocheilus donglanensis at the end).

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We walked back to the road again across the rice fields during harvest – here rice is just cut and grows back twice a year, while frogs are hopping around. We drove 680 m high into another mountain range from where we had to climb down into a valley more than 300 m depth. All the way down we found amazing bamboo growing near giant rocks and below was the entrance to this valley-cave called Long Dong. This cave had sunlight coming in from a hole in the top and the water level was way down, impossible to reach, therefore the only way to get the fish was with a fishing rod. The water we had to get slowly into our bag by droppings from caves top…

 
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The Barbine living here is also not blind, but Sinocyclocheilus donglanensis from the Long Dong Cave, in the Hongshuihe River system near Gongping Village, 24°20’30″N, 107°24’39″E, Taiping Town, Donglan County, has very interesting blood red barbels. This is the cave which they say is connected to the former. But the most amazing of all complete blind cave cyprinids in Guangxi Province, or as the matter of a fact in the entire world, is:

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Sinocyclocheilus furcodorsalis Chen, Yang & Lan. It was described in 1997 from the Ba Me cave, a underground river at Tian’e County, ca. 25°58’N, 107°02’E, Guangxi Province, and has – in the male – a very unique feature. The only thing some what similar known in fishes is from the Australian Kurtus gulliveri, where the male has also a forward standing bone on its head, to carry the eggs on a string immediately away from the female before they are eaten. But the Kurtus is not a blind fish, and does not live in deep caves. Unfortunately the only live Sinocyclocheilus furcodorsalis specimen died at Mr. Lan’s place, but below some more details of it, male and female…

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…and one can see: only the male of Sinocyclocheilus furcodorsalis has this amazing head- formation (upper photo and centre left), the female (centre right and above) does not have it. That is why I believe is that possibly the biology of this species could be similar to Kurtus in northern Australia, which was studied extensively by Tim Berra. But Sinocyclocheilus furcodorsalis living in the complete darkness for millions of years had to adapt to this possibly unique survival method as well…

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…I definitely want to study the biology of this (and other) and other unique species in the near future with the support of the Guangxi Fisheries. Thank you Li, thank you Chen, thank you Pan and Wong and all the other great people from Guangxi Fisheries.

2 thoughts on “The Search for Blind Cave Fishes in Guangxi

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