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Retinal differentiation in syngnathids: comparison in the developmental rate and acquisition of retinal structures in altricial and precocial fish species

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The altricial–precocial spectrum describes the degree of morphological maturation of offspring at the moment of hatching. In fishes, precocial species develop all their structures at early stages of embryogenesis and larvae hatch at an advanced stage of development, while altricial species hatch at a less developed stage. The timing of retinal development also varies significantly between precocial and altricial fish species. Thus, retinal development is completed before hatching in precocial species. In contrast, a relatively simple retina is observed in altricial newborns and the acquisition of the adult retinal features extends until late in larval life. Therefore, retinal maturation at hatching could be considered as a morphological character to describe the developmental mode of fish newborns. Syngnathids fishes hatch with well-developed sensory systems, jaws, and feeding structures and, therefore, they are considered as precocial fish species. Using as a model the retina of two species of syngnathids (Syngnathus typhle and Hippocampus guttulatus), we describe the retinal maturity during different embryological stages and compare the results with previous studies in the retina of other altricial and precocial fish species. This will be done through a review of the pertinent literature, as well as by drawing on our own experience gathered through recent studies on fish retinogenesis. These differences in the maturity of the visual system have implications for the vision-based survival skills during the early life stages after hatching and for the overall ecology and fitness of the species.

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Amacrine cells


Bipolar cells


Ganglion cells


Ciliary marginal zone


Ganglion cell layer


Horizontal cells


Inner nuclear layer


Inner plexiform layer




Nerve fiber layer


Optic nerve


Optic nerve head


Outer nuclear layer


Outer plexiform layer


Outer segment of photoreceptors


Pigmented epithelium




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The authors express their gratitude to M.S. Holguín-Arévalo for her excellent technical assistance. Samples for this study were obtained under the frame of the research Projecto Hipposafe, funded by the Fundaçao para a Ciencia e a Tecnologia, Portugal (PTDC/MAR/122616/2010). This work was also supported by grants from the Spanish Ministerio de Ciencia y Tecnología (BFU2007-67540) and Junta de Extremadura (PRI06A195, GR15158).

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Correspondence to Javier Francisco-Morcillo.

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Animals included in the present study were treated according to the regulations and laws of the European Union (EU Directive 2010/63/EU) and Spain (Royal Decree 1386/2018). This article does not contain any studies with human participants performed by any of the authors.

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Álvarez-Hernán, G., Andrade, J.P., Escarabajal-Blázquez, L. et al. Retinal differentiation in syngnathids: comparison in the developmental rate and acquisition of retinal structures in altricial and precocial fish species. Zoomorphology 138, 371–385 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00435-019-00447-3

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  • Altricial
  • Development
  • Fish
  • Hippocampus guttulatus
  • Precocial
  • Retina
  • Syngnathus typhle
  • Visual system