Quirks & Quarks

Devil's Hole Pupfish survives in the desert

An extremely rare fish that lives in a desert sinkhole got there recently by migrating across dry land.

Tiny fish has moved to its home across kilometers of very dry land

Divers surveying the pupfish population in Devil's hole, Nevada. (Brett Seymour, USDI National Park Service)
The unique Devil's Hole pupfish barely survives in a single, tiny geothermal sinkhole near Death Valley California - the hottest, driest place in North America. A few dozen of the tiny fish live in water hot enough to kill any other fish, scraping a meagre diet from algae that grows on the walls of their home.

Scientists had thought that the pupfish had been isolated in this tiny pool for more than 10,000 years, the last time an inland ocean covered this desert. But new genetic work by Dr. Christopher Martin, a biologist from the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, has found that the pupfish has only been genetically isolated from its relatives for a few hundred years. That means that, somehow, pupfish crossed tens or hundreds of kilometres of desert to colonize Devil's Hole.

Dr. Martin suspects that this colonization might have been during one of the catastrophic but infrequent floods that hit the desert, or that possibly eggs might have been accidentally carried to the pool on the feet of birds.

Related Links

Paper in Proceedings of the Royal Society B
Science magazine news story
- BBC News story