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Nature’s Underdogs, The Mighty Pupfish

Owens River Pupfish, courtesy of California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Owens Pupfish, Cyprinodon radiosus, courtesy of California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

“At the junction of Highway 6 and Highway 395, Billy took a right and floored it to Fish Slough, toward what could be best described as halfhearted puddles containing the last of the Owens Valley pupfish, a two-inch-long silver fish whose charisma—which is to say, its lack thereof—did not endear it to the average valley resident. It wasn’t a sport fish, it wasn’t edible, and it made no one any money. Not a cent.” 

From “The Parable of the Pupfish,” a story from my collection Cover This Country Like Snow and Other Stories

Mistreated, underappreciated and completely misunderstood, pupfish are nature’s underdogs. They are nearly extinct in Death Valley’s Devil’s Hole. In the Owens River they were pushed out by the construction of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, the completion of which prevented the natural flooding that provided such a great seasonal marsh home for this incredible fish.

What is remarkable about this fish? That it lives in just a few inches of water, at temperatures as high as 110 degrees Fahrenheit and in cold conditions, too, at temperatures as low as 32 degrees Fahrenheit? That like the finches of the Galápagos, they have evolved into several different species in their islands of water, which are separated by desert sands  over hundreds of miles? That they used to eat mosquitos from the Owens River, and mosquitos are the only animal for which I have no affection? Or that they persist at all?

Owens pupfish have had a traumatic history — first the Aqueduct, then the killing machines known as large-mouth bass, which are a non-native sporting fish introduced by entrepreneurs and fish and game agents in the early 20th century. I doubt those men aimed to kill off the pupfish; they simply sought ways to increase tourism dollars in the Owens Valley. Retired fisheries biologist Phil Pister called the introduced large-mouth bass, “chainsaws with fins.”

A largemouth bass eating another fish. Photo stolen while searching for a suitable image to illustrate how the Owens River pupfish didn't stand a chance against the bass!

A largemouth bass eating another fish. Photo stolen while searching for a suitable image to illustrate how the Owens River pupfish didn’t stand a chance against the bass!

While researching my book, I became obsessed with pupfish. What did their recent history say about humanity’s attempt to control our environment? Their ancient history, how could we reckon with that? After all, they descended from fish that lived in lakes and streams that were connected to one another during the Ice Age. What lessons could we learn from their seemingly small universe, their isolated existence in puddles and holes between vast stretches of desert? Why try to save them at all? What’s the point of a pupfish? What good is it to us?

If Phil Pister had his way, we’d give the pupfish the same opportunity to ask the converse of those questions – What is the point of a human? What good are you humans to us pupfish? 

My answer: as the party responsible for the dire dilemma of the pupfish, we are also the only ones who can resolve it. Some of us have so much hope and science stored up in our hearts that we might not only save the pupfish, but save other plants, other animals, too. And even in the face of daunting evidence to the contrary (you know, all the data about the rate of extinctions, the amount of carbon in the atmosphere, the catastrophic drought conditions in much of the Western U.S., the lack of protein to feed the 9 billion people we’ll soon be sharing this planet with, etc.), we’re stupidly going to keep trying.  

These three stories and articles get at these questions:

  1. You MUST read Phil Pister’s seminal article, “Species in a Bucket,” from the Natural History journal, January 1993. He is an Owens Valley hero.
  2. Matt Miller’s dispatch from Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge near Death Valley National Park, which The Nature Conservancy helped protect for pupfish and other irreplaceable resources such as spring water, captures the breathtaking scope of the pupfish’s natural history. My colleagues and heroes Dave Livermore, Bill Christian, Jim Moore, Laura Crane, Sophie Parker, Scott Morrison, and many, many others have made a difference for the mighty pupfish.
  3. The Forge Journal published my story “The Parable of the Pupfish” this summer! My real-life heroes appear in the story, some as composite characters.

Have a pupfish story? Leave a reply below! What good is a pupfish?  What good are we to them? Has Kristine gone mad?




8 comments on “Nature’s Underdogs, The Mighty Pupfish

  1. Alice Chan says:

    In 1973, when I was living and working in Bishop, I became very engaged in saving the Devil’s Hole pupfish. My boss at the time was a ‘who cares about the desert tortoises, who cares about the pupfish’ kind of guy, and one day he asked me what good the pupfish were. I stumbled through the best answer I could muster at the time, and then tracked down my idol, Phil Pister, and asked for a better answer. Without blinking an eye he said “you should have said ‘What good are *you?*”

    1. Alice – thank you for sharing your story about Phil! He has a lot of fans, that is for sure! Thanks for your hard work with the pupfish at Devil’s Hole!!!

  2. Jan says:

    I love pupfish! I worked to save them from the mighty bass infiltration at Fish Slough in the mid 1980’s. I found them in potholes and in places nobody would ever suspect. They are amazing, colorful pugnacious creatures and are gems of the Owens Valley (and other special spots as well). I worked for Phil and not only is he hysterically funny, but also a dedicated conservationist and a “can do” kind of guy. The pupfish made it, because of his efforts. My sharing is that in the late 80’s Fish Slough was overrun with bass. It was a constant struggle to keep ahead of them. We, as seasonal aids, set up baited lines, snorkeled and tried to spear them (I was bitten by a bass!), gill netted them and finally tried explosives. We treated BLM Springs. In the end, they are still here and we are all better for it.

    1. Jan – what a story! I can picture the frustration you must have experienced trying to stay on top of the infiltration! Thanks for all you did for the pupfish!!!

      1. Jan says:

        It was an amazing experience and one of the highlights of my time living in the Owen’s Valley! I was so honored to have the opportunity!

  3. Matt Miller says:

    Kristine, thanks for a lovely post and for linking to my blog. Pupfish are fascinating creatures — sitting and watching their antics at Salt Creek in Death Valley shows that they have their own lives, their own priorities, their own way of seeing the world. And for that alone we should protect them.

    I recently learned there is a non-fiction book on pupfish coming out in September: “Relicts of the Beautiful Sea” by the great science writer/scientist Christopher Norment. He is a wonderful writer; you should check it out. I plan to review it on Cool Green Science.

    Thanks again for including me in this great blog post.

    Matt Miller

    1. Thank you Matt for the book recommendation and for your great work!

  4. Chris Norment says:

    Hi, Kristine – A friend of mine forwarded Matt Miller’s comment to me, which led me to your interesting blog. “Relicts of a Beautiful Sea” is now out, and I will be reading at Spellbinder Books in Bishop on Tuesday, October 14th at 6 pm, if you are in the area – and I will talk about Owens pupfish! UNC Press website:

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