I sat in a small red room. It was filled with chairs in three rows, a few people, a podium, and a projector screen set-up. I had brought in a backpack, a mild cynicism at being pushed to attend, a cup of complimentary coffee and pastry that were helping me move past that, and an excitement to learn new things. There seemed to be a subtle segregation between the rows of chairs, of which two were in use, perhaps by pedigree, friendliness or the remains of my cynicism. The people I was already familiar with and with whom I would become familiar sat in the middle row, as did Kevin C. Brown presenter of the fascinating story of the fish that is an environment of inquiry in the Nevada desert all on its own. Kevin had a middle slot in the morning presentation run, and so the lively impression he made upon us before his talk kept contrasting in my mind with an ichthyology presentation I imagined I’d be bored by. The boredom wouldn’t last though, and the Devil’s Hole Pupfish captivated at least the second row.
“Science and Landscapes of Conservation: Ichthyology and the Devil’s Hole Pupfish 1890 – Present” is about survival and extinction, scientific query and land use administration, conservation, history, political geography, and more. The animated presenter tells us a story of federal employees visiting Devil’s Hole during a biological survey, pickling samples of the fish and sending it off to the ichthyology lab at Stanford for taxonomy. The journey of our perception of the Pupfish continues in its classification as a unique species, a victory in Supreme Court to protect it from water use by local ranchers, the investigation of its history within Death Valley, and questions of scientific value. What makes it worth studying? The history of the Pupfish as Kevin presents it mirrors our perception of the pupfish’s identity. It is an endangered individual species in Death Valley, whose survival is as much political as it is ecological. It is at the conjunction of human use and investigation, and it remains somewhat enigmatic. Its population is far below the typical point of no return for a species. I raised my hand to ask about that very point and Kevin answered the assumption I hadn’t realized I’d placed in the question: yes it does challenge our idea of what the minimum viable population number is. Whether or not the Pupfish proves to be an exception to the rule, it provides us the brief to perspective to re-examine older questions, both in population and beyond.
The Pupfish raises a lot of questions: How do we approach research? What perceptions do we make about what is worth studying? What judgments do we make that determine the objects of studies, and the context those objects sit within? How do our history, professional, academic, disciplinary, affect our views on what we are allowed to study and what we are not? What about the object’s history and it has been perceived, judgement, studies, and understood? The fish is in Death Valley, in State Park lands, and below certain thresholds to be considered endangered. It is studied by biologists and ichthyologists, Park Service scientists, with a mind to the concerns of the species first and its habitat second. Death Valley is a scientific environment, and it’s studied as a geological and human use landscape amongst other things. Devil’s Hole however, is not studied in its own right. It is not a scientific landscape, but is only studied in reference to being a part of a Death Valley Aquifer and the habitat of the Pupfish. Thus many barriers to the understanding of the Pupfish present themselves from this bizarrely atomized context.
So my takeaway from Kevin’s presentation doesn’t have much to do with a Pupfish, but like I didn’t expect the Pupfish talk to be interesting, I also didn’t expect it to make me wax in front of a keyboard about perspective and opportunity. But I don’t think it’s that often that we get the chance to observe an absence of something in our field of study, so I want to indulge myself. The observation of this hole in the field of study is an opportunity to re-evaluate what it is we allow ourselves to study and what we do not, as well as to examine whatever barriers other than ourselves might enforce those standards. So I’d like to thank Kevin and the Pupfish for livening up their spaces and mine.