The ghost catfish transforms from glassy to glam when white light passes through its mostly transparent body. Now, scientists know why.
The fish’s iridescence comes from light bending as it travels through microscopic striped structures in the animal’s muscles, researchers report March 13 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Many fishes with iridescent flair have tiny crystals in their skin or scales that reflect light (SN: 4/6/21). But the ghost catfish (Kryptopterus vitreolus) and other transparent aquatic species, like eel larvae and icefishes, lack such structures to explain their luster.
The ghost catfish’s see-through body caught the eye of physicist Qibin Zhao when he was in an aquarium store. The roughly 5-centimeter-long freshwater fish is a popular ornamental species. “I was standing in front of the tank and staring at the fish,” says Zhao, of Shanghai Jiao Tong University. “And then I saw the iridescence.”
To investigate the fish’s colorful properties, Zhao and colleagues first examined the fish under different lighting conditions. The researchers determined its iridescence arose from light passing through the fish rather than reflecting off it. By using a white light laser to illuminate the animal’s muscles and skin separately, the team found that the muscles generated the multicolored sheen.
The researchers then characterized the muscles’ properties by analyzing how X-rays scatter when traveling through the tissue and by looking at it with an electron microscope. The team identified sarcomeres — regularly spaced, banded structures, each roughly 2 micrometers long, that run along the length of muscle fibers — as the source of the iridescence.
The sarcomeres’ repeating bands, comprised of proteins that overlap by varying amounts, bend white light in a way that separates and enhances its different wavelengths. The collective diffraction of light produces an array of colors. When the fish contracts and relaxes its muscles to swim, the sarcomeres slightly change in length, causing a shifting rainbow effect.
The purpose of the ghost catfish’s iridescence is a little unclear, says Heok Hee Ng, an independent ichthyologist in Singapore who was not involved in the new study. Ghost catfish live in murky water and seldom rely on sight, he says. But the iridescence might help them visually coordinate movements when traveling in schools, or it could help them blend in with shimmering water to hide from land predators, like some birds, he adds.
Regardless of function, Ng is excited to see scientists exploring the ghost catfish’s unusual characteristics.
“Fishes actually have quite a number of these interesting structures that serve them in many ways,” he says. “And a lot of these structures are very poorly studied.”