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Political metaphor waits to happen: Devil's Hole Pupfish edition

High Country News
USFWS Pacific Southwest Region

Midway between Las Vegas and Death Valley, the Ash Meadows Wildlife Refuge is beautiful in a way that, in my still-limited experience, compares to no other place on earth. Ash Meadows is in the desert, and yet Ash Meadows has water, lots of it.


That water comes from deep aquifers, and it flows through the desert in colors you thirst for later.


The refuge served as an oasis for people native to the region. Now it's home to a couple dozen species that live only in Ash Meadows. One of those species is the Devil's Hole Pupfish. The park has other groups of pupfish, but the Devil's Hole Pupfish lives only in Devil's Hole, in the middle of Ash Meadows, in a hole so deep that no one has ever reached the bottom of it.

In that hole, all year round, swims the tiny Devil's Hole Pupfish; in spring the males turn bright blue and fight for mates.

High Country News

Twice a year, the National Park Service sends divers into Devil's Hole to count the pupfish.

Ken Lund/Flickr

I've seen them emerge from the pool calling out the numbers of fish they counted -- "28!" or "40!" -- and then slip back under the water.

Sarah Goodyear

Hillary Rosner writes in Wired this week that the latest count, from September, found 75 Devil's Hole Pupfish. That's down by half from recent years, but still twice the nadir of 2006. Scientists have been keeping a backup collection of the species in a separate tank, just in case. And that's where the story gets weird. Rosner writes:

Somehow a few pupfish of a different species managed to infiltrate the refuge and—to put it politely—their DNA quickly spread through the population. After about half a decade, every fish in the pool was descended from the invaders, who gave their offspring telltale genes and an extra set of fins. Wildlife officials moved all the hybrids to a hatchery, where, unlike captive Devils Hole pupfish, they couldn't stop making babies. "There were floor-to-ceiling tanks of these hybrid fish," says Andy Martin, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Colorado at Boulder who led the research into the hybrids' DNA. "This was a population that had been sputtering away, and now it was going like mad."

To Martin, the fact that an influx of new genes caused a population explosion suggested what was wrong: "genetic load," a glut of defective DNA that accumulates in a small population. On the upside, that diagnosis suggests a cure—a way to save the species. Martin has a plan to bring the fish back from the brink. But to the kind of people who have battled extinctions in the past, his solution is heresy.

It turns out that the way to save the Devil's Hole Pupfish is to change them. If they don't change, if they just keep fighting for mates and breeding within their own small population under the Nevada desert, the Devil's Hole Pupfish could disappear. For me, that's a metaphor for what happens when political ecosystems prejudice purity over churn and orthodoxy over growth.

P.S. In a way, it doesn't matter if the little blue critters continue life on earth. Kevin Wilson, an aquatic ecologist at Death Valley National Park, who watches over them, told me, "This species is considered a 'bellwether' species to future global warming/climate change." I like that idea. The Devil's Hole Pupfish exist for reasons we don't fully understand, but from the fact that they exist, we learn something about our planet is doing. The pupfish know how nature is handling climate change, for instance. Amazingly, they also know when the ground is shaking. Wilson says the water in Devil's Hole sloshes when the ground shakes far away, like in Haiti or Japan. We don't need the pupfish to tell us that, not with our modern equipment in place, but I love that they do. Below, video of what happened in Devil's Hole during an earthquake in Baja California on April 4, 2010. Let it play -- it takes a bit to get going.