In Search of the Elusive Devils Hole Pupfish

Story by Ed Boitano, Travel editor, Photographs by James Boitano

The blistering Southern California sun blazed down on our car as we skirted across the Mojave Desert. Deeper and deeper we drove into the barren landscape where all forms of precipitation had been sucked dry by centuries of unforgiving heat and aridity. With my brother behind the wheel, I stared out the window at scorching valleys, dry lake beds and multicolored rock layers. We must be crazy, I thought, as we approached the hottest, driest and lowest point in the U.S. With summer temperatures regularly hitting 120 degrees, the 3 million acres of wilderness known as Death Valley National Park is the habitat of only the most resilient plants and animals; life forms who have been able to adapt to this cruel environment.

The Timbisha Shoshone people have made Death Valley their home for centuries, spending the winters in the valley and the summers in the snow-capped mountain. My memory raced back to the TV series “Death Valley Days,” where teamsters would drive twenty mule teams through this godless terrain transporting borax. That was a period when men were men. But I figured that if the Timbisha Shoshone people and the teamsters could take this harsh landscape, then so could we. Granted, our mode of transportation – a 2010 fully-equipped, air conditioned sedan – would make our visit a slightly different experience, but who were we to quibble with trivialities.

As the sign post for Death Valley came into sight, my brother took an abrupt turn the other direction because we had another important destination to make first. A destination that few humans have ever encountered: the home of the elusive Devils Hole Pupfish.

Back Story

The Devils Hole Pupfish (Cyprinodon diabolis) is among the 13 known species of Pupfish. The various subspecies of Pupfish serve as evidence that a series of prehistoric desert lakes were once interconnected. When the Pleistocene lakes evaporated approximately 10,000 years ago, the Pupfish were isolated from one another, where they adapted to their new environment, creating a series of unique subspecies.

The Devils Hole Pupfish are the most well-known of the Pupfish and also the smallest at an average length of just 3/4 of an inch. Their only habitat is in the 93 degree waters of Devils Hole, located within the Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge in southern Nevada – approximately 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas – a detached unit of Death Valley National Park. They are constantly on the verge of extinction; natural threats from flash floods to earthquakes have been known to  disrupt their fragile ecosystem, but the major threat has been groundwater depletion due to agricultural irrigation. In May 2009, the National Park Service announced the latest count of Devils Hole Pupfish ranged from 56 to 83 fish.

After a couple of dusty wrong turns, we decided it was time to give the map another look. To our surprise, we realized we might have actually driven past their desolate habitat without even noticing it. We backtracked to a barely legible sign post, which announced we had arrived. There was not another soul around for miles. We noticed a small circular chain-length fence at the base of a hill. We grabbed our gear and headed up the rugged trail.

After adjusting our eyes from the glaring sun, we peered through the protective chain-link fence. The Devils Hole Pupfish’s entire world is a 6.6 ft by 13 ft rock-bound spring-fed limestone hole, approximately 400 feet deep. They were beautiful creatures. Unlike other Pupfish, the Devils Hole subspecies lack pelvic fins and have large heads and long anal fins. The sexes are different colors, with the males a silver color with neon-blue sides. The female is smaller and more light-brown. This species occupies an area just inches from the surface of the subterranean reservoir pool and frequents a limestone shelf, which provides sunlight exposure and access to food – primarily algae, diatoms, and invertebrates – as well as a site for spawning. Most of the reproductive efforts are concentrated in April and May. It takes an average of seven days for eggs to hatch, with the young reaching maturity eight to ten weeks later. They rarely live longer than a year. The Devils Hole Pupfish are listed on the IUCN Red List of endangered species. The water level is monitored daily by the National Park Service.

“But will they be around next year?” I asked my brother.

“Will we be around?” He replied. “Life is fleeting and someday our own species may be extinct.”

We looked at each other and smiled. It was a brother to brother moment of bonding. We had shared something unique and special, something that we will never forget. Now it was time to hit the spring-fed swimming pool at Furnace Creek Ranch.

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