Repeated eye reduction events reveal multiple pathways to degeneration in a family of marine snails

Lauren Sumner-Rooney, Julia Sigwart, Jennifer McAfee, Lisa Smith, Suzanne Williams

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

8 Citations (Scopus)


Eye reduction occurs in many troglobitic, fossorial, and deep-sea animals but there is no clear consensus on its evolutionary mechanism. Given the highly conserved and pleiotropic nature of many genes instrumental to eye development, degeneration might be expected to follow consistent evolutionary trajectories in closely related animals. We tested this in a comparative study of ocular anatomy in solariellid snails from deep and shallow marine habitats using morphological, histological, and tomographic techniques, contextualized phylogenetically. Of 67 species studied, 15 lack retinal pigmentation and at least seven have eyes enveloped by surrounding epithelium. Independent instances of reduction follow numerous different morphological trajectories. We estimate eye loss has evolved at least seven times within Solariellidae, in at least three different ways: characters such as pigmentation loss, obstruction of eye aperture, and “lens” degeneration can occur in any order. In one instance, two morphologically distinct reduction pathways appear within a single genus, Bathymophila. Even amongst closely related animals living at similar depths and presumably with similar selective pressures, the processes leading to eye loss have more evolutionary plasticity than previously realized. Although there is selective pressure driving eye reduction, it is clearly not morphologically or developmentally constrained as has been suggested by previous studies.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2268–2295
Issue number10
Early online date01 Sep 2016
Publication statusPublished - 03 Oct 2016


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