Background: Vertebrate corneas feature a variety of microprojections, to which a tear film adheres. These microprojections are formed by folds in epithelial cell membranes, which increase surface area, stabilise the tear film and enhance movement of nutritional and waste products across cell membranes. Differences in corneal microprojections among vertebrates have been correlated with habitat and differ markedly between terrestrial and aquatic species.
Methods: This study investigated epithelial microprojections of both the aerial (dorsal) and aquatic (ventral) corneal surfaces of the ‘four-eyed fish’Anableps anableps using scanning electron microscopy.
Results: The central region of the dorsal cornea, which projects above the water, had a density of 16,387 ± 3,995 cells per mm2, while the central region of the ventral cornea (underwater) had a density of 22,428 ± 6,387 cells per mm2, a difference that suggests an environmental adaptation along the two visual axes. Both corneal surfaces were found to possess microridges rather than microvilli or microplicae characteristic of terrestrial/aerial vertebrates. Microridges were 142 ± 9 nm wide and did not differ (p = 0.757) between dorsal and ventral corneas. Microridges were consistently separated by a distance of 369 ± 9 nm across both corneas.
Conclusion: Dorsal-ventral differences in corneal epithelial cell density in Anableps anableps suggest a difference in osmotic pressure of the two corneas. The modest differences in the microprojections indicate that the need to secure the tear film underlying each optical axis is of prime importance, due to the likelihood that a persistent layer of water normally covers both dorsal and ventral corneal surfaces and that maintaining a transparent optical pathway for vision is critical for a species prone to predation from both above and below the water's surface.