Usually I pick animals for this blog because they look funny, or they have a silly name, or because there’s something really super special awesome about them. Today’s animal is a bit different, because although it is quite an incredible creature on its own, many of the most amazing things about it are the results of human experimentation.
Zebrafish are found in parts of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Nepal. They have also been introduced to some areas of the US and Colombia, inadvertently and on purpose. They are freshwater fish, and are generally found in slow-moving, shallow waters. They can live in rivers, streams, floodplains, and rice fields.
Human disturbance is detrimental to many species of animals, but there are always a few that can cope or even benefit from human-changed habitats. Zebrafish are one of these lucky species, as they don’t seem to mind areas that have been altered because of rice cultivation. Growing rice often means waterways are dammed and irrigation systems are created, and zebrafish can be found in both of these altered ecosystems.
Zebrafish are quite small, innocuous fish. They can reach massive lengths of 6.4 cm, though sizes are more commonly a much more reasonable 2.5 cm. Zebrafish get their name from the stripes that run down their sides; each fish has five to seven blue stripes. Male zebrafish have gold colouring between their blue stripes, while females are silver-coloured.
Breeding in zebrafish occurs during the monsoon season, from April to August. The fish get pretty excited about the chance to mate, rising at dawn to start courting one another. Male zebrafish follow a female around, each of them trying to lead her to a spawning site. They do this by nudging her and swimming in circles around her, which must get extremely annoying. Once a pair has reached an appropriate site, they line up their genital pores and the female releases her eggs, and the male releases his sperm.
The fertilized eggs hatch after two to three days, with all hatchlings being female. Differentiation between the two genders starts to occur at five to seven weeks of age, though males need about three months for their testes to develop completely. What causes fish to become female or male is not yet known, though it is thought that food supply and growth rates influence gender. Slow-growing zebrafish grow up to be males, while faster growing ones become females.
Zebrafish, while seemingly simple and nondescript fish, have incredible regenerative powers. While they are still larvae, zebrafish can grow back their fins, heart, brains, and retinas. These abilities have been the subject of intense research, with possible applications in human medicine being explored.
Regeneration isn’t the only trait that makes zebrafish useful research subjects. They are hardy fish, with short lifespans and large clutch sizes, making them ideal for genetic studies. They were one of the first vertebrates to be cloned, and many mutated strains of zebrafish have been created. Among the more bizarre is a strain of transparent zebrafish that glows when the brain is undergoing strong activity, and a zebrafish that turns green in waters polluted by oestrogen.
Zebrafish aren’t just popular research animals — they are also extremely common in aquaria, especially since they come in many colours. They have even made florescent zebrafish, because why would you want a natural looking fish when you can have a GloFish®? And yes, they are actually called that.
Cover image by Azul, Copyrighted free use, via Wikimedia Commons