Desert pupfish are tiny, dynamic fish measuring no more than 2 inches in length. They have robust round bodies and males flaunt blue torsos and yellow tails during the spring and summer breeding season. 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 the fish are small streams, springs, pools, ponds and marshes below 1, 500 feet of elevation. During the chillier winter months, they borrow into the mud and stay dormant until spring warms their waters.

Once spring arrives, desert pupfish courtship begins and continues through summer. It involves a female finding a 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. The young fish are called frye and 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.

In the wild, desert pupfish face threats that have eradicated their populations 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.

At the Phoenix Zoo

In 2008, the Zoo became involved in desert pupfish conservation efforts by dedicating ponds on Zoo grounds to raising the fish for release to the wild. 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 Zoo chose to focus on the Cyprinodon macularius.

Desert Pupfish Conservation

Once eradicated, or geographically extinct, in Arizona, the desert pupfish made a comeback through reintroductions from captive breeding populations. Examples can been seen by  Zoo visitors every day in ponds on the Arizona Trail near the coati exhibit and on the Africa Trial next to Giraffe Encounter.  Through partner organizations, including the Arizona Game and Fish Department (AGFD) and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, our desert 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.

AGFD also conducts annual surveys on our pupfish populations to determine an estimate of how many residents we have in our ponds. The surveys are done by setting live fish traps that are baited with food and left for a period of time. The results of the most recent survey yielded 430 fish in our Arizona Trail pond and 661 fish in our Mandarin pond next to Giraffe Encounter. There were also lots of fish swimming around outside of the fish traps, so the actual populations are even larger than those numbers!

Ways you can help at home:

  • Conserve water and understanding where it comes from and where it returns to after you use it
  • Keep pollutants out of waterways
  • Never release an animal or plant into a water system without knowing if it is native to that system
  • Support The Arthur L. and Elaine V. Johnson Foundation Conservation Center at the Phoenix Zoo
  • Build awareness about this small vibrant fish that lives in the desert