What Color Would a Death Valley Artist Paint a Pupfish in Love?

The rocks at Death Valley’s Artist’s Palette are world famous for their color.

Geology is up close and personal at Death Valley. The Valley floor and sides, stripped free of most vegetation, can’t help but show their true colors. The most colorful place to check out these colors is along the paved one-way Artist’s Palette’s drive, which is near the Devil’s Golf Course, Gold Canyon, and Bad Water basin, other treasures of the Valley.

The colors you see are the result of oxidation of various metals. One example of oxidation that everyone is familiar with is the formation of rust on iron. Along Artist’s Drive, iron compounds create the red, pink and yellow you see. Mica derived from tuff, produces the green. Manganese produces the purple. (Tuff is a light, porous rock created from volcanic ash.)

A close up of the rocks at Artist’s Palette.

While visiting the Artist’s Palette overlook is the objective, the drive itself is worth the trip. I took the following photos while Peggy was driving. (It was her turn.) In addition to the scenery, there were fun curves and roller coaster ups and downs!

Road shot one.
Road shot two.
Road shot number three featuring the nose of Iorek the truck.

Of course the fun road also has beautiful scenery along it. Artist’s Palate has hardly cornered the market on color, as Peggy’s photos demonstrate.

Photo by Peggy Mekemson.
Photo by Peggy Mekemson.
Photo by Peggy Mekemson.

Now, let’s get back to the question raised in the Headline: Assuming an artist is in Death Valley has a full palette of colors, which one would he choose to paint a pupfish in love? Enquiring minds want to know.

But first, some background. You’ve probably heard of pupfish. There are several species scattered in locations around the National Park. Once upon a time they were happy residents of a huge lake that filled Death Valley. Lake Manly was a result of the Glacial Age. When the glaciers retreated to the far north and mountain tops 10,000 years ago, the lake was left to dry up and the pupfish were left scrambling for any remaining bits of water left, like individual springs. Lack of any contact created a number of subspecies.

The ones I will feature today live in Salt Creek. Their much more famous cousins live outside of the the Valley proper in what is known as Devil’s Hole, a 430 foot deep hole in the ground filled with water. What makes them so famous is that they are a critically endangered species. Today, there are less than 100 left. There were more in the 1960s but even then they were rare enough to be declared an endangered species, one of the first species to be so, seven years before the bipartisan passage of the Endangered Species Act of 1973.

Environmentalists the world over were ecstatic. The business people not so much. Nearby ranchers were limited in how much water they could pump out of the ground and developers in what land they could sell. Profits would be reduced. All that to save a tiny fish from extinction. A “Kill the Pupfish,” “Save the Pupfish” bumper sticker war ensued. National headlines were created and people across the country became aware of the pupfish. It is still a symbol of the ongoing battle between those who see objects primarily in terms of money and those who see them primarily in terms of inherent value. Being a lifelong environmentalist, I come down on the side of the pupfish, but I feel empathy for those whose livelihood was impacted.

Now join Peggy and me as we go in search of the ‘illusive’ pupfish of salt creek, whose males turn bright blue when they are in love, or is that lust. Either way, I’m glad that isn’t an infliction of human males.

A road sign some 15 minutes west of the Furnace Creek Visitor’s Center points you down a short, but bumpy dirt road to Salt Creek. The first thing you notice is that there is indeed a creek, which is a rare site in Death Valley. We were lucky to be there in April when it was still flowing. The second thing we noticed was that a well-built board walk followed along the creek.We eagerly set out with our eyes pealed on the water, searching. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

No fish here. But I enjoyed the dapples of bright sunlight…

Again, no fish. I was stuck with admiring the ripple patterns caught by the sun. But where were the pupfish?

Again, nice riparian habitat, but for what. And then…
There they were. Busy male pupfish protecting their territory and looking for love! They didn’t appear blue to us, however. Maybe they weren’t ready for prime time. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)
Right next to it was a pool absolutely teeming with the little fellows. Apparently they hadn’t received the message about being endangered. We learned that the word prolific hardly fit when describing the baby producing capacity of the females. And the males were more than willing to do their share. The literature used the word ‘millions’ when describing a season’s production. Unfortunately, when the creek dries up most of these offspring are lost. Only those that live near the spring in year around water survive— and wait for the next year so they can one again start their frenzy of propagating. (Photo buy Peggy Mekemson.)
An information panel gave an artist’s rendition of a happy couple. “But where’s the blue?” went dashing through my head. Remember the old “Where’s the beef?” commercials. Okay, I admit that there is some blue, and it is on the male. The panel described the mating process. And it isn’t even R-rated. A female arrives in the males territory, swims over to him, and snuggles up to his side. They start shivering in anticipation, and zoom, she’s pregnant. Just like that. I’d say something about being premature but apparently, that’s how it’s done. “Was it good for you, honey?”

When you watch pupfish for a while they appear to be playful, dashing around, chasing each other, and plowing up the dirt with their noses. That’s where they get the name pupfish. We wished this year’s crop good luck and I took a final photo of the creek as we headed off for out next adventure: exploring Mosaic Canyon, which will be our next post.

Water is precious in the desert and the pupfish is only one of a number of animals and birds that take advantage of Salt Creek as is makes its way out into the desert to disappear into the sand.

19 thoughts on “What Color Would a Death Valley Artist Paint a Pupfish in Love?

  1. That was quite an adventure looking for the pupfish Curt and I must say anticlimactic 😂 but I did love the water reflections you found and all of the great pictures. They are sure little guys. Glad you are having fun you 2 cute pupfish.. now just dye your hair blue 😂😘😘

  2. Great story about the pupfish Curt! I loved hearing all that information. The photos from both of you are outstanding. I remember that one-way narrow road that bounces over hills around corners in the Artists’ Palette area. Love you guys. Hope you are having loads of fun.

    • Thanks, Crystal. Bunches. Peggy and I are having a blast. But then again, hanging out in Death Valley, Zion, Bryce and at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon plus over the past month, how could it be otherwise. Love you too. –Curt and Peggy

  3. I wasn’t expecting a post from you describing puppy love. But there you have it!

    Do you know if they attempt offsite breeding for the more endangered versions?

    • They have, Dave. In fact they have spent a lot. All with very little luck. Another option is just to send in a few Salt Creek females. That will increase numbers but also create a different subspecies, which is how it works in nature. The purists find that hard to accept but if survival is at stake, possibly half a piece of pie is better than none.

  4. Looking at the pup fish couple having their conjugal embrace I feel the male looks content enough, however the female seems somewhat chagrinned and surprised perhaps of the brevity of it all?

  5. When I saw that blue-green in your first two photos, my first thought was of copper. I suppose it was because tarnished copper, like on the bottom of kitchen pots, so often shows the same colors swirled together.

    I’ve heard of the pupfish for years, but somehow missed knowing anything about them except for the fact that they’re endangered. This filled in a lot of fascinating details, and I really enjoyed it. I guess in the pupfish world, asking a guy, “Are you feeling blue today?” would resonate somewhat differently! It was interesting to learn how they got their common name, too. I don’t think I ever would have figured that out on my own — even though there is a dogfish!

    • I thought of copper as well, Linda.

      I became keenly aware of the pupfish issue when I was running a statewide environmental organization in the 70s, Linda, but it took me all this time to go see them. And that’s even with having been in and out of Death Valley numerous times.

  6. Thanks for this, Curt. You brought back some wonderful memories of one of my early (1978?) cross-country adventures… Placerville to San Antonio in the beloved orange VW… I was mesmerized by the varying colors of the hills going through Death Valley…. it may be where I first got bit by the love of desert back then. But…. oh! the torture of driving in the un-airconditioned bug in early September….

    And those wonderful road shots. I could do that while driving back in the day when the traffic was a bit sparse… (or is that the curmudgeon leaking out of me?) 🥴

    • I can imagine Death Valley being a little warm in September, Gunta. A decade earlier I was wandering around in a VW bug without air-conditioning in Sacramento’s Central Valley with 90 to 100 plus degrees

      Those road shots are taken when Peggy is driving, Or she takes shots when I am driving. Grin. However, in a pinch, my small camera can function with one hand. I learned a lot about shooting from the car when Peggy and I re-drove the route of my 10,000 mile bike trek. Peggy drove the whole way so I could. –Curt

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