These transparent fish turn rainbow with white light. Now, we know why

Light gets diffracted by repeated structures in the ghost catfish’s muscles

A close up photo of several ghost catfish swimming on a black background while a light is shining on some of their scales which appear iridescent.

The ghost catfish (several shown) becomes iridescent when white light passes through its mostly transparent body.

Nan Shi, Xiujun Fan and Genbao Wu

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.

When backlit with a white light, the mostly transparent ghost catfish becomes iridescent. Microscopic striped structures in the fish’s muscles diffract the light, separating it into different wavelengths. These structures change in length as the fish swims, causing the rainbow colors to flicker.  

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.

An electron microscope image of sarcomeres which appear to be gray rectangles in a horizontal row with lighter gray lines separating them vertically.
Banded structures called sarcomeres (seen in this electron microscope image) make up the threads bundled together in muscle fibers of a ghost catfish. Each sarcomere (one highlighted) consists of two adjacent “tiles” of interlocking myosin filaments and actin filaments, threadlike protein structures responsible for muscle contraction. White light passing through the repeated sarcomeres gets separated into different wavelengths, giving the fish their iridescence.X. Fan et al/PNAS 2023

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.”

McKenzie Prillaman was the Spring 2023 science writing intern at Science News. She holds a bachelor’s degree in neuroscience with a minor in bioethics from the University of Virginia and a master’s degree in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.

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