Scientists Aim to Preserve a Rare, and Blind, Species of Chinese Fish

The extremely rare humpback golden line barbel is nearly blind and has a mysterious horn-like protrusion above its head. Danté Fenolio/San Antonio Zoo

China is famous for many things, but cave-dwelling fish is not one of them. Yet this country has a wealth of such hidden creatures, many of them in environmental peril. Desperate not to lose them, an international team of scientists has been trying to find and catalog unknown species before they disappear. They just discovered their biggest catch yet: a fish that is among the most elusive and strangest in the world.

Just two of these fish, which are known as the humpback golden line barbel, or Sinocyclocheilus cyphotergous, have ever been preserved in museum collections, and no ecological data exist for the species. Scientists first described the fish in 1988, after finding it in one cave, but it had not been documented since then. Relying on tips from local fishermen, the search involved steep descents and treacherous climbs. And the caves where the fish were finally found frequently flood.

Several features make this fish among the most bizarre ever found. Because it has barely any pigment, its skin is pearly white. Although it has vestigial eyes, the fish is nearly blind. Related to carp, koi and goldfish, this species also has a protrusion on its back that looks like a tiny horn, the function of which is entirely unknown. Scientists call its appearance "otherworldly."

"There are likely dozens of undescribed species remaining to be discovered below China," Danté Fenolio, vice president of conservation and research at the San Antonio Zoo, told Newsweek. He says that the Chinese Cavefish Working Group—the scientists behind the find—discovers new species "on every one of their expeditions."

In addition to studying this fish, the group is continuing to search for other rare species in the hope of protecting them and their environment. "China has the greatest diversity of cave fishes on Earth," says Fenolio, "and unfortunately we know very little about them." If these scientists get their way, China may just yet become famous for its rare cave fish.