Pupfish Ripples

“Cyprinodon salinus is so very alone in the world. One of its subspecies is restricted to a thin bead of water a few miles long in the best of seasons, the other is exiled to a universe of less than one-half square mile. But measurements…. do not accurately describe the isolation of Cyprinodon salinus. To grasp this solitude it is necessary to sit on a ridge above Salt Creek and look down the long, broad spread of Death Valley, the bounding march of the Panamint and Amargosa ranges plundering the miles, and consider what it means to be so lost in the great sprawl of the Basin and Range country, to have swam into such an aching solitude, the years and sand and salt and vast distance spiraling away from your only home, like the land itself.”

– Christopher Norment, Relicts of a Beautiful Sea


There are many wonders in Death Valley, most of them mineral – badlands, canyons, mountains, tortured erosion, volcanic craters, salt, convolutions of rock layers whose arrangements and disarrangements speak of vast time and unfathomable forces. The depth, the heat, the light, the dryness are what we think of when we come to the place to be appalled at its barrenness. The thin veneer of visible life, the plants whose shapes have themselves come to seem quasi-mineral and the animals living their hardscrabble existence in such harsh desert, these creatures inspire sympathy and admiration for their tenacity. But one of Death Valley’s greatest wonders is perhaps its humblest, the one that simply should not be there, could never be imagined in such a place: fish.

Pupfish Ripples

The Salt Creek pupfish inhabit just a few short miles of below-sea-level stream where Death Valley’s subterranean water is briefly pushed to the surface by the underlying geology. This small habitat shrinks enormously in the summer, when air temperatures commonly exceed 120F and the creek’s water evaporates rapidly and grows twice as salty as seawater. Their neighboring subspecies, the Cottonball Marsh pupfish, has an even smaller and arguably harsher habitat among brackish pools in the salt pan and lives in 100-degree water in the summer. Some pupfish have been found to tolerate the heat by going without oxygen, respiring anaerobically for hours at a time. Yet each year, a population manages to survive the heat and salt to breed again in the cooler season.

Channel Chase

For a creature with such an epic lifestyle, the pupfish are not particularly majestic nor dignified. But they are vigorous and lively, guarding their small territories and chasing mates and rivals with a flitter of blue in water scarcely deep enough to cover their two-inch bodies. In calm stretches of Salt Creek’s clear flow, they hardly seem aquatic at all, appearing to levitate above the desert gravel. When they take a notion to move, they accelerate suddenly, pushing a band of sunlit crescents before them. Though it’s surely anthropomorphizing to think so, one can’t avoid a feeling of joy as they zip about in their small world, unconcerned that 15,000 years of warming and aridity have shrunk their great Pleistocene lakes to a few patches of moisture amid the ranks of stony mountains and scorching basins.


“Once there was more water: giant lakes arrayed like fingers splayed in soft sand, tracking the basins…. It would have been something – to stand above Death Valley and see a lake 80 miles long and 600 feet deep, cupped between the Panamint and Funeral Mountains. Lake Lahontan, Lake Russell, Searles Lake, Panamint Lake, Lake Manly: gone these last 10,000 years, gone with the giant ground sloths and saber-toothed cats, gone with the glaciers. The gulls that wheeled above the lakes, the fish that swam through the waters, the snails that crawled amid the algae and reeds – all the creatures that lived with the waters would have gone elsewhere if they were able, or perished, or followed the dying streams into springs and hidden canyons. And in these places the descendants of these refugees have lived on for generation after generation, wedded to the promise of water flowing from the mountains or rising up from the ground, a liquid fossil drifting through thick beds of rock and time.”

–  Christopher Norment, Relicts of a Beautiful Sea

Shallow Pool


9 thoughts on “Pupfish

  1. No matter what preconceived notions we may have about the life of a given spot, nature and more directly evolution always has something to amaze us and prove that we are but small operators when it comes to creativity. I’ve never heard of or imagined that there could be fish in Death Valley. Actually, I think the pupfish are quite striking compared to many of the other fish found in friendlier climes.

    • Thanks Steve! Yes, the mere presence of fish in Death Valley is amazing, and (as with the endemic toads we have here at Deep Springs) the ease with which one can observe such remarkable creatures is a real privilege.

    • Mostly algae: “Salt Creek pupfish feed mostly on algae and cyano-bacteria, but may also consume snails and crustaceans.”

      I find that the biology of this region often has a certain poignancy, driven as it is by ephemeral conditions, very recent geologic history and resulting rapid adaptations. The endemic animals especially seem perched on the razor edge of eternity.

  2. The second and fifth images of the uncluttered pupfish are lovely. I think if you shot them with the new Canon 5DS(R), there will be incredible detail available after cropping.

    • Actually, Rajan’s an online acquaintance and fairly frequent commenter. You should take a look at his work sometime – his specialties are the unusual combination of Death Valley, Iceland and Goa, India (including really neat stuff from Goan temples and festivals). And I’m sure he’s right about the new Canon, as far as that goes….

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