After eons of isolation, these desert fish flub social cues

By | September 21, 2022

Getting out into society after a long isolation gets awkward. Ask the Pahrump poolfish, loners in a desert for some 10,000 years.

This hold-in-your-hand-size fish (Empetrichthys latos) has a chubby, torpedo shape and a mouth that looks as if it’s almost smiling. Until the 1950s, this species had three forms, each evolving in its own spring. Now only one survives, which developed in a spring-fed oasis in the Mojave Desert’s Pahrump Valley, about an hour’s drive west of Las Vegas.

Fish in a desert are not that weird when you take the long view (SN: 1/26/16). In a former life, some desert valleys were ancient lakes. As the region’s lakes dried up, fish got stuck in the remaining puddles. Various stranded species over time adapted to quirks of their private microlakes, and a desert-fish version of the Galapagos Islands’ diverse finches arose.

“We like to say that Darwin, if he had a different travel agent, could have come to the same conclusions just from the desert,” says evolutionary biologist Craig Stockwell of North Dakota State University in Fargo.

The desert “island” where E. latos evolved was Manse Spring on a private ranch. From a distance, the spring looked “just like a little clump of trees,” remembers ecologist Shawn Goodchild, who is now based in Lake Park, Minn. The spot of desert greenery surrounded the Pahrump poolfish’s entire native range, about the length of an Olympic swimming pool.

By the 1960s, biologists feared the fish were doomed. The spring’s flow rate had dropped some 70 percent as irrigation for farms in the desert sucked away water. And disastrous predators arrived: a kid’s discarded goldfish. Conservation managers fought back, but neither poison nor dynamite wiped out the newcomers. And then in August of 1975, Manse Spring dried up.

Conservation managers had moved some poolfish to other springs, but the long-isolated species just didn’t seem to get the dangers of living with other kinds of fishes. The poolfish were easily picked off by predators in their new home.

Lab tests of fake fish-murder scenes may help explain why. For instance, researchers tainted aquarium water with pureed fish bits. In an expected reaction, fathead minnows (Pimephales promelas) freaked at traces of dead minnow drifting through the water and huddled low in the tank. The Pahrump poolfish in water tainted with blender-whizzed skin of their kind just kept swimming around the upper waters as if corpse taint were no scarier than tap water. Literally. Stockwell and colleagues can say that because they ran a fear test with nonscary dechlorinated tap water. Poolfish didn’t huddle then either, the team reports in the Aug. 31 Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Then, however, Stockwell and a colleague were musing about some rescued poolfish in cattle tanks when nearby dragonflies caught the researchers’ attention.

Before dragonflies mature into shimmering aerial marvels, the young prowl underwater as violent predators. In moves worthy of scary aliens in a sci-fi movie, many dragonfly nymphs can shoot their jaws out from their head to scoop up prey, including fish eggs and fish larvae. With young dragonflies prowling a pool’s bottom and plants, poolfish moving up the water column “would be a good way to reduce their risk,” Stockwell says. Testing of that idea has begun.

Fish that people thought were foolishly naïve may just be savvy in a different way. Especially after isolation in a desert with dragons.