Ever seen an eyeless catfish? National Park Service resource manager Jack Johnson and biologist Peter Spouse saw the fish after descending into a cave. It was everything that legend tells it: A 3-inch pale catfish with no eyes.
The scientists had found a Mexican blindcat at Amistad National Recreation Area in Val Verde County about 10 miles from Del Rio, Popular Science reports. The nearest spot where scientists found them before then was about 30 miles away in Mexico, said Dean Hendrickson, a curator of ichthyology at the University of Texas at Austin who has studied the fish for decades and learned to keep them in captivity.
“There’s this big aquifer in Coahuila where these things live,” Hendrickson said, referring to the nearby Mexican border state. “These things have been around for a long time. They live in the cave in this geology, so we also expected they’d be on the Texas side because of the geology.”
The aquifer Hendrickson mentioned is part of the Edwards-Trinity Aquifer system, a belt of water-bearing rock layers that stretches from Oklahoma across Central Texas and into Mexico. Scientists with the Edwards Aquifer Authority are studying exactly how water flows between the Trinity and Edwards aquifers in Central Texas.
The EAA itself was a product of legal battles in the 1990s to save cave- and spring-dwelling species on the federal endangered list. The eyeless catfish, or blind cat, is listed as endangered in Mexico and as a foreign endangered species by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. That agency’s officials were not available for comment Monday, according to the Science World Report.
Johnson had thought that he saw the fish in an Amistad cave in April 2015, but it took five visits to get it in a net, said Sprouse, a cave specialist and partner in biological consulting company Zara Environmental.
Using climbing equipment, he and Johnson descended about 65 feet down a vertical column of rock until they hit a still pool of clear water. That’s when they saw the fish.
“They move pretty slowly,” Sprouse said. “They were quite easy to catch. They don’t have any predators in their habitat.”
They hustled to get them across the lake to the Parks Service office. Soon, they were driving the fish hundreds of miles to Austin to be placed in Hendrickson’s care, Sprouse said.
The two — a male and a female, Hendrickson thinks — are now being housed at the San Antonio Zoo, where vice president of conservation and research Danté Fenolio works to preserve “assurance colonies” of cave species from across the United States and from abroad in case of ecological disaster.
“The reason for that is that I could envision a day when something tragic happens to that part of the aquifer, (such as) a contamination event,” Fenolio said. “We might have to take some of these animals into protective custody for their own good.”
If confirmed, the Mexican blindcat would join two other species of blind catfish found in Texas: the toothless blindcat and the widemouth blindcat, which live hundreds of feet below San Antonio in the Edwards Aquifer.
“The only way to find them is when they come out of wells, so they’re very difficult to detect,” Sprouse said. “Whereas the species in Del Rio is really close to the top of the aquifer.”
Futurity said that while the scientists are focused on studying and preserving the eyeless catfish, the discovery raises some big questions about endangered species, a thirsty population expanding at a high rate, and the laws and regulations meant to balance those interests.