Intentional Mutation as Conservation: The Devils Hole Pupfish Case
Species conservation is always a battleground: profit, politics, biodiversity, environmental health, and time interact and sometimes collide with each other in different areas of conservation efforts. Controversy has been a part of conservation stories as well, but perhaps not always as extreme as in the Devils Hole pupfish case.
This particular species has been under the threat of extinction for decades from both natural and man-made causes. Cyprinodon diabolis, the smallest desert pupfish species in its genus, thrives at a warm aquifer in a unique environment nowhere less than in a spot on the Mojave Desert above Death Valley. It’s one of the world’s rarest animals, and endangered at only 75 individuals remaining as of September 2012 according to Wired via Grist.
Wired shares that from 1970s the government had made efforts to save the Devils Hole pupfish from going over the edge of extinction. Three pools were built to sustain declining populations but mishaps and natural events continued to threaten the Devils Hole pupfish survival.
The species’ own adaptations also contributed to aggravating risks that threatened it. The pupfish in the area had somehow survived the progressive environmental changes that shaped the landscape where it existed and subsequently adapted to live in it. The Devils Hole pupfish in particular have adapted to survive exclusively in its habitat where there is a low level of oxygen, a water temperature of 92 °F/33 °C and a specific place on which to spawn.
This fussiness proved to be anything but helpful when water levels in the hole started to drop in the 1960s. The aquifer underneath the Mojave was being increasingly used for agriculture at the time, and the ledge on which the fish spawned started to rise above the surface. Finally, in 1976 the US Supreme Courts awarded Water Rights in favor of the species.
Even then, in the mid-1990s the fish’s numbers began to drop again. Only 38 to 42 individuals were counted in 2007, prompting intervention from the US Park Service to start a supplemental feeding program. Again after seemingly promising initial results, the fish numbers fluctuated throughout the seasons.
While the natural population at the Devils Hole remained on the brink of extinction, the population at one of the original government built backup pools were thriving without similar complications and with an extra set of fins. It was found that that pupfish of a different species, the Ash Meadows Amargosa pupfish, had been mixed in along with Cyprinodon diabolis and produced a hybrid mutant species. This hybrid, unlike Cyprinodon diabolis, reproduced rapidly and filled floor-to-ceiling tanks. Evolutionary biologist Andy Martin of the University of Colorado at Boulder suspected genetic load, the accumulation of defective DNA in a small population, as the cause of the unexpected population increase.
As the mix-up produced the result that decades of protection efforts, feeding programs, and court battles struggled to achieve, it wasn’t long before the idea presented itself. Why not intentionally produce hybrid mutants to save an endangered species?
As the definition of ‘species’ is continuously being rewritten, science doesn’t seem to offer any clear-cut answer or direction. It was previously thought that separate species could not be crossed, but new ideas such as natural selection and additional criteria challenged the notion. Moreover, hybrids occurred naturally in the wild.
But intentionally crossing species as a means of conserving them seems to be a departure from the whole essence of conservation itself. In the case of the Devils Hole pupfish, applying this suggestion means the pupfish’s hybrid offspring would survive but the original species’ genetic makeup would not. And if the new species is something entirely different from its parent, was the original species actually saved from extinction?
The Devils Hole pupfish’s case is unique in that it survives in a very particular environment, limiting options for scientists to find ways to conserve it. However, not every endangered species’ story is like the Devils Hole pupfish’s. What works in one case might be misused and abused in another. When the habitats are different from and more complicated than a water hole, when species interdependence and ecological chains are interwoven, will intentional mutation still be a good choice as a conservation measure?
One of the factors to consider is not only the mutation of physiological features (e.g. extra set of fins) but also biological characteristics (e.g. rapid reproduction rate). How mutant biological characteristics will affect other species and ecosystems on a larger scale, when the hybrid species is no longer in a tank or contained in a limited space, should be kept in mind in foreseeing consequences.
Another factor to consider is how well the mutant hybrid species itself will do in the habitat or environment of its extinct parent. In gaining new characteristics in its mutation, what adaptations might have been lost for the compensation? As of present, there had been no legal permission to let the Ash Meadows Amargosa pupfish species to breed directly with the natural population in the original habitat, or for the hybrid mutants to be transferred in the Devils Hole. The new species’ performance in the original habitat is yet unknown. The same uncertainty applies for every other species which might be subjected to the controversial conservation method in the future.
Taking the larger picture in perspective, intentional mutation and hybridization as a conservation method is both too extreme and too easy a solution for general conservation cases. If endangered species could be crossbred to produce hardier, albeit mutant, offspring every time, would habitat and environment conservation still be highly prioritized as it is today? Indeed, why spend time, money, resources, and effort to restore a damaged or dwindling habitat when its local species can be crossbred in order for them to survive?
Global challenges like extinction, conservation, pollution, and environmental degradation should be addressed with the larger picture in mind. Environmental problems rarely develop overnight and easy, quick solutions are tempting but ultimately uncertain ways out. Once again, each choice that we make should be consistent with the goal of our generation moving in the direction of sustainability.
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