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Miracle Of Evolution Fights For Survival In Death Valley

The Devils Hole pupfish.
by Tangi Quemener
Devils Hole (AFP) Nevada, May 18, 2007
For 60,000 years, they have withstood the bone-chilling extremes of the Ice Age, the blistering temperatures of the desert and an ever-shrinking habitat. These days, however, the Devils Hole pupfish rely on an eight-foot high fence which surrounds their murky pool of water in this remote corner of Death Valley National Park.

At only 2.7 centimeters long, the Devils Hole pupfish are one of nature's great survivors, an evolutionary miracle which for thousands of years has called home some of the most inhospitable terrain on Earth.

But with only 38 of the pupfish remaining, down from around 500 at the start of the 1990s, the species is in peril -- and trying to get the world to notice is harder than ever.

While any story about the threats facing polar bears guarantees instant headlines, generating public interest in Devils Hole's residents is an ongoing challenge says Death Valley Park spokesman Terry Baldino.

"When you see a fish, you think: 'I'm wondering how that would taste with lemon on it!'" Baldino said, saying that compared to iconic animals like polar bears, grizzly bears and bald eagles, the pupfish were "a harder sell."

"But when people come here and actually see and experience the area, and see pupfish in the wild, they say: 'It's unbelievable, there's fish here!'

"Little by little, we're trying to get the word out that the pupfish are as valuable and just as important as cuddly cute polar bears."

Public access to Devils Hole is restricted. A fence topped with barbed wire and equipped with motion sensors guards against intruders to the pupfish's refuge, a 150-meter deep pool that is only a few meters wide.

Although Death Valley, which lies 400 kilometers north-east of Los Angeles, is known as one of the hottest and driest places on earth, where temperatures hit 50 degrees Celsius in summer, the pupfish's habitat was left over from the end of the Ice Age, when lakes and rivers covered the region.

Falling water levels caused by agricultural interests threatened the fish's home in the 1960s and early 1970s, resulting in a legal battle that ended with a US Supreme Court ruling in 1976 which outlawed tapping into the region's water table for irrigation by farmers.

That decision effectively turned the region into a sanctuary, offering hope for the survival of the pupfish. But since 1990 the numbers of the fish have fallen steadily, baffling scientists monitoring the species.

Paul Barrett, endangered species listing and recovery coordinator for the US Fish and Wildlife Service, said environmental officers were at a loss to explain the decline.

"There's all sort of speculation," he said. "It could be a genetic bottleneck, which has made reproduction less viable. We don't really know what's driving it."

Barrett said numbers of the fish were likely to increase later in the year.

"The count is currently 38, but that's a spring count," he said. "Generally the counts are higher in the fall, because fish reproduce in the summer so numbers go up. The numbers die off in the winter."

Scuba divers descend into Devils Hole twice a year to count the fish manually, while the water quality and chemistry are monitored regularly.

Barrett and Baldino said there were several reasons for ensuring the pupfish's survival.

"This fish has been there for 60,000 years estimated," says Barrett. "We don't have the right to play God, it's arrogant of us to think that as humans we can come in, and take away something that's not convenient.

"The second reason is that endangered species are symbolic in value," he added. "Things like the bald eagle, which are a symbol of the United States, the Devil's Hole pupfish is very iconic because there's a landmark US Supreme court ruling based on it."

Baldino meanwhile said studying how the pupfish has adapted to a shrinking habitat over the years could provide useful pointers for humans.

"We can learn from in our own life, as our populations grow and our world seems to shrink, we're creating a situation where we're going to have limited resources," Baldino said. "There something here that we can learn."

Source: Agence France-Presse

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