Endangered Devils Hole pupfish is one of the most inbred animals known

November 4, 2022

As its name implies, the Devil’s Hole pupfish lives in a truly hellish environment.

Confined to a single deep limestone cave in Nevada’s Mojave Desert, 263 of them live in water that hovers around 93 degrees Fahrenheit year-round, with food resources so scarce that they are always on the edge of starvation, and with oxygen levels so low that most other fish would die immediately. The pupfish, Cyprinodon diabolis, live in the smallest habitat of any known vertebrate.

New research now documents the extreme effect that these harsh and isolated conditions have had on this fish’s genetic diversity.

In a paper published this week in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, University of California, Berkeley, biologists report the first complete genome sequences of eight pupfish species from the American Southwest — 30 individuals in all, including eight Devils Hole pupfish. Astoundingly, the Devils Hole pupfish is so inbred that 58% of the genomes of these eight individuals are identical, on average.

“High levels of inbreeding are associated with a higher risk of extinction, and the inbreeding in the Devils Hole pupfish is equal to or more severe than levels reported so far in other isolated natural populations, such as the Isle Royale wolves in Michigan, mountain gorillas in Africa and Indian tigers,” said lead researcher Christopher Martin, UC Berkeley associate professor of integrative biology and curator of ichthyology in the campus’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology. “Although we were not able to directly measure fitness, the increased inbreeding in these pupfish likely results in a substantial reduction in fitness.”

Berkeley News