I Like My Fish Extra Dry

Whenever I think about Death Valley – the lowest, driest and hottest place in North America – I can’t help but think of fish.

Minus 43 degrees Fahrenheit! That was the low temperature this past Tuesday in Embarrass, Minnesota. And if that’s all the local chamber of commerce has to work with – I’d be embarrassed too. Between edits, I find myself this time of year thinking about loading up the family and heading off for a long weekend in Death Valley National Park. Now, visiting Death Valley in the dead of summer is a bit like stepping into a blast furnace. (Summertime trips to Death Valley are all the rage among young Europeans, especially Germans, because nowhere in Europe can one experience similar extremes, such as temperatures approaching 130 degrees in the shade.) And believe it or not, whenever I think about Death Valley – the lowest, driest and hottest place in North America – I can’t help but think of fish.

Death Valley is a graben, which is a large chunk of the Earth’s crust that drops between at least two faults to form a valley. Angelenos (as residents of the City of Angels are sometimes referred to) usually approach Death Valley from the west heading east over the giant Inyo Mountains. As the Inyos are crested and the descent into the Valley begins, the scene becomes positively primeval: with soaring mountains, undulating sand dunes, shimmering white salt flats and textbook alluvial fans. For rock-hammer wielding and armchair geologists alike, Death Valley is unwrapped in all its naked glory. At first glance, while a geological feast for the eyes, Death Valley seems to suffer from a paucity of flora and fauna, but looks can be deceiving. Let me put it this way, who would you rather get some face time with, Benjamin Franklin or Paris Hilton?

A few years ago, record setting winter and spring rains in Los Angeles led to its second rainiest year since records started being kept (nearly 40 inches was the total that year); Death Valley also had amazing rainfall amounts, but only wracked up 6 inches during the same time. Don’t quote me, but I believe since I’ve lived in SoCal (since 1994) that Death Valley had one year of either no measurable rainfall or next to none. After good winter and spring soakings, the Mojave Desert, of which Death Valley is a Delaware-size chunk, experiences an explosion of wildflowers of every imaginable hue and in numbers almost uncountable. Spring also brings out a profusion of lizards, insects and small rodents. Coyotes ramble across the park roads with nary a care in the world. But perhaps the strangest life form of all to inhabit Death Valley is Cyprinodon salinus, or the Salt Creek pupfish.

When we take a family sojourn to Death Valley, we a make a point of taking a walk on the short boardwalk along Salt Creek. Spillage from an upturned Port-O-John at a rock concert is about as impressive as Salt Creek. But it’s not the creek that’s impressive, but rather the little pupfish that inhabit it.

Salt Creek is the only place in the world where you’ll find Cyprinodon salinus. And therein lies the rub: What makes pupfishes so interesting, as well as some of the most imperiled fishes on the planet, is their evolutionary history, a history that has seen the once-much-wetter West of the last Ice Age transformed into today’s Mojave and Great Basin deserts.

Pleistocene relicts like pupfishes have some of the most restricted ranges of any fishes on Earth. Salt Creek is comparatively roomy when one talks of the single pool C. diabolis, Devil’s Hole pupfish, inhabits. The Devil’s Hole pupfish’s lastest brush with extinction came a couple of years ago. Here is a bit of the AP story as posted June 8, 2005, on livescience.com:


While much of today’s Southwest is arid desert, during the last Ice Age it was a much wetter place. In fact, Nevada, our driest state, and the rest of the Great Basin, was under the waters of several giant, shallow lakes – Lakes Bonneville, Lahontan and Manly (which filled Death Valley). As the region become more arid, these giant lakes evaporated into the isolated streams and springs seen today. Pupfish populations became cut off from one another and developed into unique species as a result. And as their environments became increasingly shallow and more saline, pupfishes evolved distinct survival mechanisms for their particular aquatic environments. Just like some aquarists, pupfishes became specialists.

Forty-eight percent of all native freshwater fishes in the southwestern United States, including many pupfishes, are in trouble because of groundwater mining for agriculture interests and municipalities, as well as habitat loss and introduced nonnative species.

So my family and I will probably shake off the winter cobwebs and make our merry way to one of the most fascinating places to be found anywhere. And while my girls are running down sand dunes and admiring wildflowers, I’ll be chomping at the bit to revisit my little 1-inch buddies in Salt Creek, and I’ll be silently wondering if my grandkids will be afforded the same opportunity should they decide to visit Death Valley, some 35 years hence. If you are interested in finding out more about native desert fishes, visit desertfishes.org.

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