The Conchos pupfish: a new partnership aims to restore the “napoleon” of desert waters
Today, the Conchos pupfish can only be found in the Devils River. But there are new efforts to restore this small but mighty West Texas creature.
It takes grit to live in West Texas. But native fish are perhaps the most unlikely and impressive desert survivors. The Conchos pupfish is one of those creatures. For decades, its future has hung in the balance. Now, a new partnership aims to restore this small but mighty West Texas animal.
Megan Bean is native fish conservation coordinator for Texas Parks & Wildlife, and Craig Pelke is director of ectotherms at the San Antonio Zoo.
“If I was going to ascribe the saying 'Texas Tough' to any group of fish, it would be the pupfish,” Bean said. “They are absolutely 'Texas Tough.'”
“They've got a little Napoleon Complex going,” Pelke said.
“Yes, they have some swagger,” Bean said.
Bean and Pelke brought their organizations together to preserve a rare, and distinctive, West Texas denizen.
The Conchos pupfish is just 2 inches long. But it has an outsized personality. The fins of males are often a beautiful blue or orange, and robust specimens develop “nuchal humps,” large bumps on their foreheads, that advertise their fitness for mating. Males defend territory aggressively. That makes for lives that are fierce, and brief – only two or three years, Pelke said.
“They beat the snot out of each other,” he said. “They live a fast, ornery life, and that takes its toll. It's lots of beauty, lots of behavior, and they just burn themselves out.”
As its name suggests, the fish was historically found in the Rio Conchos watershed, in Mexico, and on the Rio Grande downstream of the Conchos confluence at Presidio-Ojinaga. The fish's favored habitat is tributaries, smaller streams off the main channels.
And such habitats are deeply imperiled. Amidst drought, and intensifying water use, once perennial streams have gone dry.
A dozen years ago, Bean found the Conchos pupfish in one such stream – Alamito Creek, in Presidio County.
“And we haven't seen them since,” she said. “So before my very own eyes I watched that species blink out of that watershed.”
In Texas, the pupfish persists now only in the Devils River.
And that's where Bean, Pelke and their staff traveled in December, to capture pupfish.
The fish are well camouflaged, and proved elusive in daylight. But the team discovered a nocturnal approach.
“At night, we found that if you use those spotlights, they just pop,” Bean said. “With the iridescence of their scales, it's very easy to pick them out. That was our strategy to go grab them.”
Now, a hundred pupfish have been relocated to the San Antonio Zoo. Pelke's team has worked with other pupfish species, from Mexico, which have disappeared entirely from the wild. They're bringing that expertise to bear, to raise a Conchos pupfish population in captivity.
“It seemed like a perfect fit,” Pelke said, “that we can use our experience with pupfish with a Texas species that actually has some really feasible potential goals of my favorite conservation, and that's sticking them back in the wild.”
Bean is working with landowners to restore Rio Grande tributaries — including Alamito and Terlingua creeks. In the future, pupfish from the zoo could be released into these streams, as well the Devils River. But Bean said she won't rush the process.
“You wait for the stars to align,” she said. “Okay – we're working with the San Antonio Zoo. The stars aligned for that. Now, let's get a population going. And we're going to wait for a really good opportunity to get them out back in the wild.”
Ultimately, the fate of the Conchos pupfish is bound to that of the desert's most precious resource – fresh and flowing water.