Evolution of the acoustic startle response of Mexican cavefish
The ability to detect threatening sensory 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 stereotypical 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 define evolved differences in the C-start
... ces in the C-start response between populations of the Mexican cavefish, Astyanax mexicanus. Cave populations of A. mexicanus inhabit in an environment devoid of light and macroscopic predation, resulting in evolved differences in diverse morphological and behavioral traits. We find that the C-start is present in multiple populations of cavefish and river-dwelling surface fish, but response kinematics and probability differ between populations. The Pachon population of cavefish have an increased response probability, a slower response and reduction of the maximum bend angle, revealing evolved differences between surface and cave populations. In two other independently evolved populations of cavefish, the response probability and the kinematics of the response differ from one another, as well as from surface fish, suggesting the independent evolution of differences in the C-start response. Investigation of surface-cave hybrids reveals a relationship 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.