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Here’s how rainbowfish survive Australia’s scorching desert
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Here’s how rainbowfish survive Australia’s scorching desert

Desert rainbowfish


You will need to pack your 4WD full of survival gear, water, and food for a trip into central Australia. Yet fish have managed to persist in that parched landscape for thousands of years – how do they do it?

We at Flinders Molecular Ecology Lab set about finding out. Our recent ResearchTo find out how rainbowfish survive in desert areas, we examined rainbowfish from Australia.

Small fish populations can only be found in desert areas with limited water resources. A small population means a small gene pool – which can lead to inbreeding and poor health, as we sometimes see in endangered species.

However, even small populations can adapt well to the harsh environments of small creeks or water holes. Life finds a way – even in one of the most extreme and unpredictable environments on Earth.

Prosperity in central Australia

Native desert rainbowfish (Melanotaenia splendida tateiThey live in the deserts of central Australia. They can be found in the deserts of central Australia. About 9cmThey are usually silvery and iridescent and have a yellow-green chequered pattern on their fins.

Desert rainbowfish populations live within slow-flowing and still habitats. These include lakes, rivers, waterholes, stock dams, flowing bores, and impermanent river systems.

Their numbers fluctuate during boom-bust cycles. Rainbowfish are able to breed large numbers in drought-prone areas and spread along floodwaters or streams.

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Desert rainbowfish
Desert rainbowfish are found in slow-flowing, still habitats.
Gunther Schlmida

Our findings

Our research sought out to determine whether rainbowfish populations survive in the desert regions of central Australia and whether their genomes are able to adapt to harsh local conditions.

We collected 344 rainbowfish from 18 rivers, waterholes and other areas of the vast and arid Lake Eyre Basin as well as the semi-arid Murray-Darling Basin.

We then compared the variations in the genomes with satellite images of the presence of water in central Australia.

We found that natural selection is stronger in desert regions with drier conditions. Fish from the semi arid western region, central Australia, adapt differently to dry conditions.

These gene variations were also discovered to be carried by the fish when they disperse during floods. Fish that were pre-adapted for extreme conditions retreated to the floodwaters to survive the sometimes prolonged drought periods in isolated waterholes.

This suggests that genes that can withstand harsh environments may be able help small populations of people to survive. These adaptations could also help the species to survive in future climates which are expected become dryer and more extreme.

The most interesting adaptive difference was a mutation of a gene coding that results in some fish producing a slightly altered guanine nucleotide binding protein. These proteins are used by fish for taste and smell, water flow detection, and light sensitivity control.

This difference in the protein and other adaptations may help Rainbowfish in Central Australia survive harsh conditions. This would increase their ability to sense changes in the environment and how they change over time.

This variation can be used to compare it with the Omicron COVID-19. Research has revealed Mutations in the spike proteinSome variants of it may help spread it among people.

shallow pool in desert landscape
Small populations may be able to survive in harsh environments by having their genes adapt to extreme conditions.
Chris Brauer

Looking ahead

Our research revealed that the genetic variation of rainbowfish can be preserved in small populations to allow the species survive in the desert.

The results suggest that the desert rainbowfish population is smaller than it is in nature, at minimum during very dry periods. species conservationfor adaptation to future climate shifts. This is a fundamental change from the traditional belief that small populations are evolutionary dead ends.

Our findings show that climate change is worsening and it is important to conserve natural river flows in order to allow freshwater species adapt.

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