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Saving an endangered fish in the hottest place on Earth

Devils Hole in Death Valley National Park is home to an endangered fish species. Scientists are trying to save them -- with tech.

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Megan Wollerton
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1 of 14 Chris Monroe/CNET

An oasis in the desert

Death Valley National Park in the Mojave Desert regularly exceeds 100 degrees Fahrenheit (37.8 degrees Celsius). 

Despite the extreme temperatures, one species of fish -- the Devils Hole pupfish -- has survived here in a deep underwater cave, also called Devils Hole, for thousands of years. 

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2 of 14 Chris Monroe/CNET

An unlikely spot for fish

Devils Hole could easily be missed when you're traveling the largely unmarked desert roads. 

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3 of 14 Chris Monroe/CNET

A hidden cave

High walls of limestone hide Devils Hole from the road.

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4 of 14 Brett Seymour, Submerged Resources, NPS

There's something special here

Starting in the 1960s, groundwater pumping in the Devils Hole area caused the cave's water levels to drop. This damaged the pupfish's natural habitat, making it difficult for the now-endangered species to maintain its numbers.

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5 of 14 Brett Seymour, Submerged Resources, NPS

Devils Hole pupfish numbers today

At latest count, 87 pupfish live in Devils Hole today, up from its all-time low of 35 adult pupfish in 2013, but down from their historical numbers of 450 in the fall and 250 in the spring (the seasonal variation is normal).

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6 of 14 Brett Seymour, Submerged Resources, NPS

Counting fish

To get an accurate estimate of the number of pupfish in Devils Hole, divers like University of Nevada Las Vegas professor, Stan Hillyard, explore the cave.

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7 of 14 Chris Monroe/CNET

436 feet deep -- and counting

Divers have descended 436 feet into Devils Hole, but haven't yet found the bottom. Despite is incredible depths, Devils Hole pupfish live in the top 80 feet of the cave. 

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8 of 14 Chris Monroe/CNET

Saving the pupfish

National Park Service aquatic ecologist, Kevin Wilson, is part of a team  trying to restore the population of Devils Hole pupfish.

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9 of 14 Chris Monroe/CNET

Powering tech in the desert

Solar arrays power much of the equipment used in and around Devils Hole. 

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10 of 14 Chris Monroe/CNET

Weather trackers that hold up against the elements

A weather station next to Devils Hole, also solar-powered, tracks wind speed, precipitation, temperature and humidity.

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11 of 14 Chris Monroe/CNET

Feeding the fish

Wilson feeds the Devils Hole pupfish, who rely heavily on the shallow shelf near the water's surface for survival. Now that the water levels are lower, the shallow shelf doesn't provide as much support to the fish as before. 

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12 of 14 Chris Monroe/CNET

A Devils Hole replica

The 110,000-gallon Ash Meadows Fish Conservation Facility near Devils Hole re-creates the conditions in the underwater cave. This enables scientists and other staff to establish a "lifeboat" population of the endangered fish. 

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13 of 14 Chris Monroe/CNET

Monitoring the replica Devils Hole

The team at the Ash Meadows Fish Conservation Facility relies on programmed software to track the conditions inside the replica tank. They monitor it closely to make sure the habitat is just right for the critically endangered fish. 

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14 of 14 Chris Monroe/CNET

Pupfish on the big screen

The system also allows the team to watch the pupfish in real time from their computer screens. 

Currently, 100 Devils Hole pupfish live at the Ash Meadows Fish Conservation Facility.

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