The endangered inch-long Devils Hole Pupfish has been the subject of countless legal battles since the 1970s. (Photo courtesy of Olin Feuerbacher)
The Devils Hole Pupfish is a small blue thing. Measuring only about an inch long and often lacking pelvic fins like other pupfish, it has been described as “tiny and wimpy.”
But, as author Kevin C. Brown notes in his new book, “Devils Hole Pupfish: The Unexpected Survival of an Endangered Species in the Modern American West,” it is a survivor, having overcome a host of challenges during the past century and a half.
The Devils Hole Pupfish (the apostrophe is typically left off when referring to this particular species, according to Brown), is known, scientifically, as Cyprinodon diabolis. It is a fast-moving thing that earned its name because of the way groups of them seemed to chase each other about — like a pack of puppies.
According to Brown, part of what has made the Devils Hole Pupfish so special is that it was classified decades ago by federal scientists as a unique species and, because they only exist in Devils Hole, an endangered species, under federal law.
Brown, in fact, devotes his first chapter to tracing the story of how the Devils Hole Pupfish was first discovered (in 1891), how the tiny fish were studied and classified by early scientists, and how it came to be formally considered a unique species.
The latter point was particularly important when, in 1952, President Harry S. Truman added 40 acres of the Amargosa Desert known as Ash Meadows, which included Devils Hole, to Death Valley National Monument (now known as Death Valley National Park). The move provided permanent protection from development and other threats to the site.
Brown, who writes scientific information in easy-to-understand terms, describes Devils Hole as a kind of funnel-shaped fissure or crack in the ground that is a window into a deep subterranean lake. At about 45 feet down, the opening is filled with warm water from the lake.
The water in the 10-foot wide and 60-foot deep crack, which is a constant 92 degrees Fahrenheit, and serves as the entire universe for the pupfish. A rock ledge in the fissure, barely below the water line, serves as its sole spawning area and the algae that grows in the hole is one of its main food sources (along with insects).
Brown also describes the myriad threats the pupfish have faced over the decades, which range from numerous plans to pump groundwater from the area’s underground aquifer to use for agriculture and development, which would have caused drop in the water levels at Devils Hole, to disastrous government agency efforts designed to try to help the fish, which ended up actually killing them (such as in 2004 when a flash flood knocked measurement equipment into the hole and killed more than a third of the known fish population).
The low point in the pupfish population came in 2013, when a population count found only 35 of the species still alive in the hole (just 20 years earlier there were between 400 and 500).
Fortunately, the population has rebounded in more recent years and, according to Brown, have numbered between 135 and 185. The fish, he noted, is not yet in the clear but efforts to preserve their habitat and the species seem to be helping.
Devils Hole is located about 25 miles south of Lathrop Wells, off Nevada State Route 373. To reach it, head south on Highway 95 through Tonopah. Lathrop Wells is located another two hours south of Tonopah on 95.
For more information, go to www.nps.gov/deva/learn/nature/devils-hole.htm
“Devils Hole Pupfish: The Unexpected Survival of an Endangered Species in the Modern American West” by Kevin C. Brown is published by the University of Nevada Press and available in local bookstores or can be ordered on the University of Nevada Press website, www.unpress.nevada.edu.
Rich Moreno writes about the places and people that make Nevada special.
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