Only few fish species have successfully colonized subterranean habitats, but the underlying biological constraints associated with this are still poorly understood. Here, we investigated the influence of permanent darkness on spinal-column development in one species (Midas cichlid, Amphilophus citrinellus) with no known cave form, and one (Atlantic molly, Poecilia mexicana) with two phylogenetically young cave forms. Specifically, fish were reared under a normal light : dark cycle or in permanent darkness (both species). We also surveyed wild-caught cave and surface ecotypes of P. mexicana. In both species, permanent darkness was associated with significantly higher rates of spinal deformities (especially in A. citrinellus). This suggests strong developmental (intrinsic) constraints on the successful colonization of subterranean environments in teleost fishes and might help explain the relative paucity of cave-adapted lineages. Our results add depth to our understanding of the aspects of selection driving trait divergence and maintaining reproductive isolation in cave faunas.