Species in a Bucket

by , 17 September 2010

I am not really a wildlife person. My own work and perspective is systemic; I study global biogeochemical cycles, mathematical systems theory, and other large, shapeless, abstract ideas. I am terrible at recognizing and remembering the names of plants and animals in the field. Also, while I enjoy an aesthetic and spiritual connection to nature, my own brand of environmentalism leans towards saving ourselves - nature for nature’s sake has usually taken second place in my mind.

So I was surprised at how much I was struck by the story of the Owens Pupfish, a diminuitive endangered fish that lives in only a few small pools in the Owens Valley in California. I visited one of these habitats as part of my orientation at UC Davis and learned the story of the pupfish from Steve Parmenter of the CA Department of Fish and Game.

Steve Parmenter and my classmates at one of the Owens Pupfish's few remaining habitats

The Owens pupfish lives in desert marshes where temperature and salinity can reach extreme levels, but water diversions and the introduction of game trout in the twentieth century drove it to the brink of extinction. In 1969, the entire population of Owens pupfish lived in a rapidly drying pond. On August 18, Edwin Pister, a state biologist, transfered the population to two other ponds in the valley, and for a few moments, the whole world’s population of Owens pupfish lived in two buckets. Pister chronicled the experience in an essay in Natural History:

I remember mumbling something like: “Please don’t let me stumble. If I drop these buckets we won’t have another chance!” I distinctly remember being scared to death. I had walked perhaps fifty yards when I realized that I literally held within my hands the existence of an entire vertebrate species. If I had tripped over a piece of barbed wire or stepped into a rodent burrow, the Owens pupfish would now be extinct!
….The day had been long. We had won an early round in a fight that will inevitably continue as long as we have a habitable planet. As a realist, I could not help but ponder the ultimate fate not only of the Owens pupfish but also of all southwestern fishes and species in general. I wondered about our future. Can the values driving the industrialized nations be modified sufficiently to allow for the perpetuation of all species, including humans? Will we ever realize the potential implicit in our specific designation as Homo sapiens, the wise species? I hope the day will come when public policy will be guided by the wisdom of Aldo Leopold: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” Such recognition could constitute perhaps the first major step toward creating the sustainable society upon which our long-term survival obviously depends.
That August day twenty-three years ago had been a very humbling experience for me. The principles of biogeography and evolution I had learned many years before at Berkeley had taught me why the pupfish was here; it took the events of those few hours in the desert to teach me why I was. Such are the reflections of a biologist who, for a few frightening moments long ago, held an entire species in two buckets, one in either hand, with only himself standing between life and extinction.

The Owens pupfish was lucky, or rather, we were lucky. It is tough to say what the loss of the last few hundreds of a two-inch fish species means, but it is definitely sad. We are currently are on track to lose 18-35% of species by 2050. That is an uncomprehensible disaster.