Pupfish Screengrab

The hosts of “Wild Kingdom: Protecting the Wild,” Rae Wynn-Grant and Peter Gros, bring collected pupfish eggs from Devils Hole to hatch at Ash Meadows Fish Conservation Facility. Once hatched, the fish will join the backup population at the facility.

For a fish less than an inch long, the endangered Devils Hole pupfish has been making a huge splash lately.

The pupfish, which lives only in a flooded cave at Death Valley National Park, grabbed headlines this year when its population exploded to a 25-year high of 191 fish.

That’s up from just 35 fish remaining in their natural habitat in 2013, an all-time low.

Then last month, the little fish with the big comeback story were featured on an episode of “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom Protecting the Wild.”

“I think what makes our show so unique is, as you know, we have very serious problems with the state of the planet and we are acknowledging that, but we’re also trying to create a little hope,” co-host Peter Gros said.

The pupfish live isolated from predators in Devils Hole, a flooded cavern near Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge in Nye County.

The blue and yellow fish are less than an inch long on average and mostly live in the upper 80 feet of the cave, with limited food and resources.

“It’s such a low-energy, low-oxygen base for fish to survive in to begin with — that was pretty intriguing to me, and the fact they’ve been there and survived as long as they have,” Gros said.

During filming of the episode in December, Gros helped collect microscopic wild eggs and transport them to a facility where a “lifeboat population” is maintained in captivity in case something happens to the fish in Devils Hole.

“I assisted in that, very nervously and carefully I might add,” said Gros, who has been associated with Wild Kingdom for nearly 40 years.

The show originally aired from 1963 to 1988 and starred for most of that time widely recognizable host Marlin Perkins and co-host Jim Fowler.

Gros joined the show in 1985, after Perkins stepped down. The program has since gone through several reboots, the latest starring Gros and co-host Rae Wynn-Grant.

For the episode at Devils Hole, Gros donned a disinfected snorkel and mask and saw the captive population of pupfish up close. He said the fish were just as curious about his fingers as he was about them and totally unafraid.

Those kinds of encounters with a species teetering on the brink of extinction are the kind he will never forget, Gros said.

“If we all get involved … we can turn some of these species’ survival around and, in some cases, reintroduce wildlife,” he said.

For years, conservation efforts involving the pupfish were stymied because it is difficult to keep the fish alive outside their natural habitat.

But about a mile from Devils Hole, at the wildlife refuge, scientists have been able to maintain a captive population of more than 400 pupfish.

In 2013, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service contracted with fish biologist Olin Feuerbacher to design a replica habitat. At the end of the contract, they hired him to run the facility.

The centerpiece is a 100,000 gallon refuge tank that nearly replicates the high temperature and limited dissolved oxygen in Devils Hole. The water in the tank is about a degree and a half cooler and contains a little more oxygen.

“It’s a slightly easier place to live for the captive population, but we still want to keep it to very similar conditions,” Feuerbacher said.

The tank includes a replica of the shallow rock shelf in Devils Hole, the only part of the habitat that gets direct sunlight.

“That’s where photosynthesis occurs, the basis of the food chain,” Feuerbacher said. “That’s where the fish spend a lot of their time foraging and mating and doing all their pupfish things.”

A company that builds zoo habitats recreated the shelf with carved foam wrapped in fiberglass, based on a detailed topographic map.

The tank is 22 feet deep, compared with the 500-foot-deep cavern. Scientists stocked it with algae, invertebrates and bacteria from Devils Hole to recreate its ecosystem.

Fish relocated from Devils Hole to the tank did not survive longterm. So, researchers started collecting eggs, which hatched fish that thrived in the artificial habitat, Feuerbacher said.

“One of the main goals of this is to create a lifeboat population, so that if something catastrophic were to happen to the single wild population, we’d be able to repatriate Devils Hole with fish from the conservation facility,” he said.

The pupfish ecosystem would be among the first to be affected by groundwater drawdowns and climate change, making it a “canary in a coal mine” for ecological disruptions, Feuerbacher said.

In 1968, a year after the species was declared endangered, commercial drilling near Ash Meadows lowered the amount of groundwater that made it into Devils Hole.

More recently, environmentalists have raised the alarm about a lithium mining company’s exploratory drilling near Ash Meadows and what it could do to the natural spring system that sustains the refuge, along with the pupfish habitat.

“This entire species is confined to a geographic range that’s about the same as a two-car garage, so it’s very sensitive to something catastrophic that could happen,” Feuerbacher said.

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