Rare Eyeless Catfish Spotted in Texas

June 21, 2016 | Erica Tennenhouse

Eyeless catfish
Photo credit: Danté Fenolio

These blindcats were previously known to exist only in Mexico. 

Deep in a limestone cave at Amistad National Recreation Area near Del Rio, Texas, caver Jack Johnson first caught a glimpse of two slow-moving, pinkish-white fish with no eyes in April 2015. The pair was collected by a team in May and have since been relocated to the San Antonio Zoo.

The fish were eventually identified as the endangered Mexican blindcat (Prietella phreatophila), which appear a pale pink color because their blood is visible through the translucent skin. Members of this species dwell exclusively in groundwater from the Edwards-Trinity Aquifer that underlies the Rio Grande basin in Texas and Coahuila.

It has been suggested that water-filled caves below the Rio Grande may connect the Texas and Mexico portions on the aquifer, and the blindcat find has bolstered that theory.

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"Since the 1960s there have been rumors of sightings of blind, white catfishes in that area, but this is the first confirmation," said Dean Hendrickson, curator of ichthyology at The University of Texas at Austin, in a press release."I've seen more of these things than anybody, and these specimens look just like the ones from Mexico."

Hendrickson has been leading efforts to locate blindcat sites in Mexico and Texas for years but had only ever located them in Mexico. The fact that two were found at the distant Amistad National Recreation Area in Texas is probably a good sign for the aquifer.

"Aquifer systems like the one that supports this rare fish are also the lifeblood of human populations and face threats from contamination and over-pumping of groundwater," Johnson said. "The health of rare and endangered species like this fish at Amistad can help indicate the overall health of the aquifer and water resources upon which many people depend."

The discovery brings the number of blind catfish species within the U.S. up to three, and all have been found in Texas. The two other species are the toothless blindcat (Trogloglanis pattersoni) and the widemouth blindcat (Satan eurystomus).

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