Desert Pupfish

In the wild, desert pupfish face certain threats that have caused their extirpation in certain areas.  Those threats include the introduction of fish that prey on pupfish or compete with them for resources, the diversion of natural waterways, water pollution, and habitat modification.  All of these threats are man-made and can be managed with help from partners, private landowners, and more responsible water use.

Specific ways you can help at home include:

  • Being water conscious by conserving and understanding where your water comes from and where it returns to after you use it.
  • Keeping pollutants out of our waterways.
  • Never release an animal or plant into a water system without knowing if it is native to that system.
  • Supporting The Phoenix Zoo’s Conservation Center.
  • Building awareness about this small vibrant fish that lives in the desert!

At the Phoenix Zoo

In 2008, The Phoenix Zoo became involved in conservation efforts for the desert pupfish., by dedicating ponds on zoo grounds to raising desert pupfish for release to the wild. These tiny, dynamic fish measuring no more than 2 inches in length are an endangered species, meaning that without our help they may go extinct.  Desert pupfish have robust round bodies and males that flaunt blue torsos and yellow tails during the spring and summer breeding season.  Though two different species of desert pupfish are recognized (distinguished by their locations), the desert pupfish Cyprinodon macularius and the Quitobaquito pupfish Cyprinodon eremus, The Phoenix Zoo chose to focus on the desert pupfish.

This Arizona native boasts adaptations that only a desert fish could make useful.  Desert pupfish can withstand wide temperature ranges, especially high temperatures and with it the higher salinities that usually result.  Waters that create this habitat for pupfish are small streams, springs, pools, ponds, and marshes below 1, 500 feet of elevation.   During the chillier winter months, these little guys borrow into the mud and stay dormant until spring warms their waters.

Once spring arrives the pupfish courtship begins and continues through summer.  It involves a female finding a flashy, colorful male and then laying a single egg for him to fertilize and protect as a part of his territory.  Each female can lay up to 800 eggs per breeding season!  Like most scaly parents, this is where parenthood ends and the real-world begins for their offspring.  These youngsters are called frye and they spend the majority of their time hiding in algae and under cover to avoid predators.  The desert pupfish’s diet consists mostly of algae and small invertebrates- like snails and aquatic insects.

Desert pupfish conservation

Once extirpated, or geographically extinct, in Arizona, the desert pupfish made its come back through reintroductions from captive breeding populations.  Examples of such populations can been seen by  Phoenix Zoo visitors everyday in ponds on the Arizona Trail near the Coati exhibit and on the Africa Trial right next door to our Giraffe Feeding Station.  Through partner organizations, including the Arizona Game and Fish Department and US Fish and Wildlife, our pupfish populations are sent across southern Arizona to continue their return to once native habitat and in return other captive breeding fish are introduced to ensure the gene pool of these little residents remains strong and diverse.

Our Arizona Game and Fish partners also conduct annual surveys on our pupfish populations to determine an estimate of how many residents we have in our two ponds.  These surveys are done by setting live fish traps that are baited with food and left for a period of time- in this year’s survey, about two hours.  The results of the most recent  survey yielded 430 pupfish in our Arizona Trail pond and 661 pupfish in our Mandarin pond next to the Giraffe Feeding Station. There were still lots of fish swimming around outside of the fish traps, so the actual populations are even larger than those numbers!