New $4.5 million lab battles for life of dwindling Devil’s Hole pupfish

Three fish the color of a dingy dime, only smaller, hover near the bottom of tanks No. 6 and 7 at a new research facility 90 miles west of Las Vegas.

At 3 weeks old, they are already historic.

Never before has a Devil’s Hole pupfish been successfully hatched in a lab from an egg collected from the wild.

If researchers at the Ash Meadows Fish Conservation Facility can perfect this process, they might be able to grow enough pupfish to stock an elaborate “lifeboat” they just built and save the species from extinction.

But more anxious weeks and months lie ahead, as the small team of biologists coaxes the recent hatchlings toward adulthood and, hopefully, a new captive breeding program.

“It’s a five-step process, and we’re on step three,” said Darrick Weissenfluh, a fish biologist who manages the conservation facility for the U.S. Fish &Wildlife Service.

He and his team of three contract employees officially opened the $4.5 million facility at Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge, less than a mile from Devil’s Hole, in late July.

It was built using proceeds from the sale of federal land in Clark County, but its annual operating budget of about $250,000 will come out of three separate funds in the Fish &Wildlife Service budget.

Aquaculturalist Olin Feuerbacher was brought in from the University of Arizona to design the lab and start raising pupfish.

The aquariums he built are meant to replicate the harsh conditions in Devil’s Hole, where the water is thermally heated to about 93 degrees and carries barely enough dissolved oxygen to support life.

“Basically, these are designed to be the exact opposite of what you’d like to see in a fish hatchery,” Feuerbacher said of his tanks.

He has also set up what he called a “slime factory” to grow the native algae and invertebrate creatures the pupfish feed on in the wild.

To keep the lab free of outside contaminants, everyone who enters must douse their hands and shoes with sanitizer.

A room full of high-tech filtration systems keeps the water in the tanks at exactly the same composition as the water in Devil’s Hole, and all of the equipment is operated with computerized controls similar to those found at power plants. There are back-up systems for almost everything, and Weissenfluh and others receive automated alerts on their cellphones in the event of a malfunction.

But the centerpiece of the new facility is what Weissenfluh casually refers to as “the tank.” It’s an exact replica of Devil’s Hole, right down to the contours of the pool, built inside a semi-open structure designed to provide the same seasonal variations in sunlight and weather.

The tank holds about 100,000 gallons and ranges in depth from about 18 inches to 22 feet. Part of the tank extends underground and out of the building to replicate the dark caverns where the pupfish spend some of their time. A hatch next to the building gives divers access to the buried portion of the tank.

Researchers can control the water level down to a fraction of an inch and the temperature down to a fraction of a degree, and there are cameras and instruments everywhere to monitor activity.

This is the lifeboat, but it remains to be seen whether there will ever be any fish to put there.

‘DANGEROUS SITUATION’

It’s a growing possibility that everyone acknowledges but no one seems ready to accept: The Devil’s Hole pupfish might already be dead.

That’s certainly what Jim Deacon is afraid of.

The longtime local biologist and founder of the environmental studies program at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas has been studying the pupfish since he made his first visit to Devil’s Hole in 1961.

In the 1970s, he testified in defense of the species during a legal fight over groundwater pumping that landed in the U.S. Supreme Court and resulted in a landmark decision in favor of the fish.

He and others now worry that the shrinking population might be in the midst of genetic meltdown.

A population survey in late September yielded just 65 adult fish, the lowest fall number since regular counting began more than 40 years ago.

The spring count, which is typically lower than the one in fall, also hit a record low this year. Scientists counted 35 pupfish, fueling talk that extinction could be imminent.

“I think we’re in a very dangerous situation,” Deacon said.

The pupfish and its singular habitat have been under federal protection since 1967.

Since people started paying attention to the fish, there have never been very many of them. The population peaked at 544 in the fall of 1990 but began to decline in 1996 for reasons researchers still can’t explain.

Today Devil’s Hole is guarded by chain-link and barbed wire and a sophisticated security system that provides 24-hour video surveillance supplemented with solar power.

The cameras and alarms are linked to the outside world by a microwave dish on a tower above the water-filled cavern.

Kevin Wilson, an aquatic ecologist for the National Park Service, holds one of the few keys to the gate.

“It’s the smallest known habitat for a vertebrate species in the world,” he said.

At the surface, the pool is about 8 feet wide and 60 feet long, but the cavern angles down into the groundwater table to a depth scientists can only guess at.

Divers have been as deep as 435 feet, but “they were not at the bottom and couldn’t see the bottom,” Wilson said.

Pupfish have been found as far down as 100 feet, but they spend most of their time on a shallow shelf near the surface.

The National Park Service, Fish &Wildlife Service and the Nevada Department of Wildlife manage the fish’s future. Wilson said broader strategies are decided by a joint management oversight team while some day-to-day decisions are left to an incident command team similar to what police departments deploy “when there’s an emergency.”

The fish in Devil’s Hole are now fed five days a week. On Tuesday, Thursday and Friday they get a souped-up version of standard aquarium flakes. On Monday and Wednesday they get an enriched brine shrimp mixture, part of a new protocol launched in the past few months in response to the shrinking population numbers.

The extra food is not enough on its own to sustain the fish. It’s designed to offset a decline in the natural food supply that scientists are still trying to understand.

Though Deacon remains pessimistic about the pupfish’s prospects, he’s heartened by the extraordinary effort still being made on its behalf. To him, the fight to save the species is nothing less than “an expression of our humanity.”

“What makes humans unique is our ability to know. The more species that go extinct out there, the less there is to know,” Deacon said. “The more we learn about the Devil’s Hole pupfish, the more human we become.”

HATCHING HOPE

With so few fish left, researchers have to weigh even the smallest actions carefully. The new breeding program is no exception.

Removing even a single viable egg from Devil’s Hole could easily impact a population this small. To limit any potential damage, eggs are only harvested during times of the year when research shows spawning is limited and hatchlings rarely survive to maturity.

“We think the benefits outweigh the negatives in this case,” Wilson said.

The eggs are collected on artificial spawning beds made from store-bought carpet that is treated to remove any dye, glue or other substances that could contaminate the pool.

Feuerbacher and company retrieve the beds once a week and haul them back to the lab in water-filled tubs. There they sort through every nylon carpet strand in search of clear round eggs no bigger than the head of a pin.

Almost two months of work has produced about two dozen eggs, about half of which were unfertilized or otherwise not viable.

So far, though, the survival rate looks promising. Of the 14 fish hatched in the lab, all but four were still alive as of early last week.

“They’re in a stage now where I start to breathe a little easier,” Feuerbacher said. “We spend a lot of time watching every single egg and every single larvae.”

He knows how much is riding on the work he is doing. He feels it every time he looks inside one of the tanks and can’t immediately find one of the tiny fish. “I have about two heart attacks a day,” he said.

Feuerbacher hasn’t named any of his hatchlings yet, but he said he might in three months or so, once they reach adulthood and their gender becomes apparent. Only then will he know if what he has is a breeding program or more bad luck for a doomed species.

“Given it’s Devil’s Hole, maybe they’re all male.”

Contact reporter Henry Brean at hbrean@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0350. Follow him on Twitter at @RefriedBrean.

ad-high_impact_4
News
Ron Jeremy and Heidi Fleiss React to Dennis Hof's Death
Ron Jeremy and Heidi Fleiss speak about their friend and prominent brothel owner Dennis Hof's death at Dennis Hof's Love Ranch. (Benjamin Hager/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Nevada brothel owner Dennis Hof has died
Nevada brothel owner and Republican candidate for Nevada State Assembly District 36, Dennis Hof has died. He was 72. Nye County Sherriff's office confirmed. Hof owned Love Ranch brothel, located in Crystal, Nevada.
Las Vegas police investigate suspicious package at shopping center
Las Vegas police evacuated a southeast valley shopping center at Flamingo and Sandhill roads early Tuesday morning while they investigated reports of a suspicious package. (Max Michor/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
The Las Vegas Metro hosts the K-9 Trials
The Las Vegas Metro K-9 Trials returns to the Orleans Arena to benefit the Friends For Las Vegas Police K-9 group.
Kingman residents love their little town
Residents of Kingman, Ariz. talk about how they ended up living in the Route 66 town, and what they love about their quiet community. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Service at Southern Nevada Veterans Memorial Cemetery
Twelve unclaimed veterans are honored at Southern Nevada Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Boulder City in Oct. 9, 2018. (Briana Erickson/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Las Vegas house prices reach highest level in 11 years
Las Vegas house prices are rising But so is the amount of available homes on the market Still, properties priced below $300,000 are selling fast And September was the first time since June 2007 that the median house price reached the $300,000 mark Las Vegas home prices have been rising at one of the fastest rates in the country over the past year Recent data show the market is now less affordable than the national average
National Night Out
About 100 Summerlin residents gathered at Park Centre Dr. in Summerlin on Tuesday for National Night Out. Lt. Joshua Bitsko with Las Vegas Metro, played with 3-year-old David who was dressed as a police officer. Face painting, fire truck tours and more kept kids busy as parents roamed behind them. (Mia Sims/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Rural homeless issue comes to a head in Pahrump
On Sept. 12, Pahrump sheriff deputies told residents of a homeless encampment on private property that they had 15 minutes to vacate and grab their belongings. That decision might face some legal consequences. (Rachel Aston/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Remembrance blood drive on October 1
A blood drive was held at the Las Vegas Convention Center on the one year anniversary of the Oct. 1 shooting. (Mat Luschek/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Remembrance Lights memorial unveiled at St. Rose hospital
A dedication ceremony was held at St. Rose to unveil a memorial and to read the names of those who died on October 1, a year ago. (Mat Luschek/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
1October Blood Drive Remembrance Wall
(Mat Luschek/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
1October Blood Drive
Vitalent hosts a blood drive at the Las Vegas Convention Center on Monday, Oct. 1, 2018, the first anniversary of the Las Vegas shootings. (Mat Luschek/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
1October sunrise remembrance ceremony in Las Vegas
Myanda Smith, sister of Las Vegas shooting victim Neysa Tonks, speaks at the sunrise remembrance ceremony at the Clark County Government Center in downtown Las Vegas, Monday, Oct. 1, 2018. (Chitose Suzuki/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
‪Gov. Brian Sandoval speaks to crowd at Oct. 1 sunrise remembrance ceremony ‬
‪Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval speaks to the crowd at the Oct. 1 sunrise remembrance ceremony ‬at the Clark County Government Center in downtown Las Vegas, Monday, Oct. 1, 2018. (Michael Quine/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Father of Route 91 Harvest festival shooting victim talks about college scholarship in his daughter's memory
Chris Davis, father of a Route 91 Harvest festival shooting victim, Neysa Tonks, talks about a college scholarship in his daughter's memory to assist the children of those who died in the shooting. (Bizuayehu Tesfaye/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @bizutesfaye
Oct. 1 survivor Malinda Baldridge talks about life after the shooting
Malinda Baldridge of Reno attended the Route 91 Harvest festival with her daughter, Breanna, 17, and was shot twice in the leg when the gunman fired on the crowd.
Route 91 survivor talks about lack of progress in gun legislation
Heather Gooze, a Route 91 survivor, talks about lack of progress in gun legislation since the Oct 1. (Bizuayehu Tesfaye/Las Vegas/Review-Journal) @reviewjournal
Review held in death of man after encounter with Las Vegas police
The mother of Tashii Brown, who died after an encounter with Las Vegas police on the Strip, not satisfied after public review of evidence. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Clark County Museum opening "How We Mourned: Selected Artifacts from the October 1 Memorials"
The Clark County Museum is opening an exhibit "How We Mourned: Selected Artifacts from the October 1 Memorials" of items left to honor the victims killed in the Route 91 Harvest festival shooting. (Bizuayehu Tesfaye/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @bizutesfaye
Memorial service for former RJ lawyer Mark Hinueber
Mark Hinueber, the Review-Journal's former lawyer and defender of the First Amendment, died in Las Vegas on Aug. 23. Hinueber, who was 66, worked at the RJ and other newspapers for 42 years. On Saturday, his friends and family gathered for a memorial service.
Army veteran honored in Henderson event
Army Sgt. Adam Poppenhouse was honored by fellow veterans in an event hosted by a One Hero at a Time at the Henderson Events Center.
Michelle Obama and Keegan-Michael Key urge Nevadans to vote
Former first lady Michelle Obama and comedian Keegan-Michael Key urged Nevadans to vote at Chaparral High School in Las Vegas Sunday, Sep. 23, 2018. (Marcus Villagran/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @marcusvillagran
Nevada Task Force One Cheers Golden Knights
Nevada Task Force One Cheers Golden Knights
1 dead, 1 wounded in North Las Vegas standoff
A woman was hospitalized with serious injuries on Thursday morning after being shot inside a North Las Vegas house. Police responded about 11 p.m. to a shooting at a home on the 5600 block of Tropic Breeze Street, near Ann Road and Bruce Street. The wounded woman, police believe, was shot by a man, who later barricaded himself inside the house. SWAT was called to assist, and when officers entered the house, they discovered the man dead from an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Las Vegas Teen Makes Clothing Resale His Side Hustle
Las Vegas resident Reanu Elises, 18, started buying and selling streetwear online when he was a high school junior. Like many other young adults, the world of online resale applications like Depop and Mercari have made selling clothing online for a profit easy. Now, Elises spends his free time at thrift shops looking for rare and vintage clothing he can list on his on his shop. Now in his freshman year at UNLV as a business marketing major, Elises hopes to open a shop of his own one day and start his own clothing brand. He estimates that he's made about $1000 from just thrifted finds in the past year, which he'll use to buy more thrift clothing and help pay for expenses in college. (Madelyn Reese/ Las Vegas Review-Journal) @MadelynGReese
Fruition Vineyards Encourages Young Entrepreneurs to "Buy, Flip, Dream"
Once a month, young adults gather at Fruition Vineyards on South Maryland Parkway near UNLV to dig through a stack of rare, vintage and designer clothing that's marked down well below it's resale value. Shop founder Valerie Julian began the vent, dubbed "Fruition Vineyards" in August after running her streetwear shop since 2005. The event gives young entrepreneurs the opportunity to "buy, flip, dream" according to Jean. Meaning that they're encouraged to buy the clothing for sale and find a way to resell it for a profit, then reinvest that into whatever dream they pursue: college, a hobby or their own resale business. Shoppers lined up starting an hour before noon on the last Saturday in April for the opportunity and spoke about what they hoped to do with their finds and profits. (Madelyn Reese/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @MadelynGReese
Local man goes under cover searching for answers to homelessness
Licensed mental health therapist Sheldon Jacobs spent 48 hours under cover posing as a homeless man in an attempt to gain perspective on the complex issue.
Social Work UNLV Lecturer's Calling
Ivet Aldaba-Valera was the first person in her family to graduate from both high school and college. The 33-year-old UNLV lecturer is now pursuing her Ph. D in public policy at the school and has used her degree in social work to engage with the young Latino and Latina community of Las Vegas. (Madelyn Reese/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @MadelynGReese
Gold Point townsperson talks about why he choose to live in a ghost town
Gold Point townsperson Walt Kremin talks about the ghost town in Nevada he calls home. (Marcus Villagran/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @marcusvillagran
TOP NEWS
News Headlines
ad-infeed_1
ads_infeed_2
Local Spotlight
Add Event
Home Front Page Footer Listing
Circular
You May Like

You May Like