Of trout species native to the Great Basin and Range, many are uniquely adapted to the alkaline environments and the harsh extremes of this desolate, austere, expanse. In such lethal environs, species that adapt, even by losing the natural predisposition for cold, clear neutral pH waters and advantageous climes, may survive — even come to be dominant — in this remote and unforgiving region of North America.
It would require far more space than this brief post can afford do justice to the processes whereby a species is buffeted and pared down to a survivor species that comes to be fairly “comfortable” in such exacting intolerant surroundings.
Yet of many unique species that call our western deserts home, there is one that stands out as perhaps one of the absolute rarest species in existence on the whole planet.
Most Americans and world citizens will most likely never even hear about this species, let alone actually get to see it up close and personal.
Yet here it is, in this remote expanse of SE Oregon — surviving on a pinpoint on the map — with just a few acres that it can, and does, call home.
There is debate about how this species came to “accept” such a harsh environment that it inhabits as home. (I would postulate that it simply had no choice.) But, to be clear about its home environment — first I should tell you that I am not talking about a trout species — though I am talking about a chub species.
Yet even more important, I should tell you that the environment that this fish inhabits is a set of hot springs with scalding water, and with arsenic levels 25 times the critical limit for drinking water for human beings.
An unmarked road which turns into white dust along an unnatural wasteland is what leads to this exceptional phenomenon of adaptation and survival. It is evident that the State of Oregon and the BLM are not keen on advertising this place — as it is dangerous, with pets lost and people injured for not mindfully respecting and avoiding the dangers of the fragile banks and hot toxic waters.
A side note — wagon loads of Borax, as so often depicted in movies and in old commercials (used for soap and similar cleaning processes), chiefly originated here; taken from the mineral deposits left by two small lakes built around hot mineral springs — extant at what once was the depths of ancient Lake Alvord.
The species in reference here is known as the Borax chub: a guppy sized chub, most less than half an inch in length and seeming to be translucent to the naked eye.
Here’s a close-up with the macro at very close range: a trio of Borax chubs, camera facing:
One emerging from the depths (all three to four inches of water) of its home shore hideout:
Gila boraxobius has a very ephemeral existence — a brief lifespan to mature and propagate another generation of this remarkable tiny species. And they are threatened not only by environmental degradation of their always hostile environment — there are also occasional bursts of thermal energy that cause die offs of these poor victims of their remote, isolated, limited, unpredictable, environment.
The upper-lake almost looks pleasant in contrast to the desert surroundings; but don’t let this “mirage” fool you . . . it is not at all a hospitable place to be:
Yet there are some shorebirds near the lakes; though thankfully they seem to have a sense to avoid the actual arsenic laden waters of the toxic hot spring lakes . . .
Hopefully they will train their offspring to avoid the dangers as well as they do.
Aside from the occasional fowl, and occasional wildflowers, that may surprise hikers in this sun-baked alkali laden ‘gateway to hell’ (as it’s sometimes called): . . .
Perhaps the most amazing, most surprising, aspect of this region is the chubs themselves. While they seem rather non-descriptive to one’s naked eye — when the macro is turned on and the digital view is zoomed in — a remarkable transformation takes place as one begins to realize that each of these minuscule miracles — is really a work of unique art — for each single tiny chub is truly distinctive.
Rows of tiny spots cover the head, and align the sides of the spine, of this chub:
An intricate pattern of scales, and a uniform forked tail – with fin rays – exists:
Each little fish shows unique characteristics, so that surely the chubs recognize each other!
Much as it is with individual trout; some chubs are intensely spotted, some lightly spotted:
While we marvel at the genetic diversity, and adaptability, of the rare species of flora and fauna extant n the Great Basin and Range of SE Oregon, we can’t help but think of the rare strain of cutthroat trout from this very same basin. A trout strain that is so rare — that it is authoritatively classified as extinct . . .
The last word we have received: is that the expected new fish biologist for the Hines District in SE Oregon accepted a different position; and so, the interview process begins anew, and the new fish biologist for the region is anticipated to be hired and working by sometime in the fall of 2014.
Let us be mindful and hopeful that an ally of Oncorhynchus clarki alvordensis, and of native trout enthusiasts, is found and enabled to fulfill the unique work that Shannon Hurn has begun: with the propagation and restoration of Alvord cutthroat trout phenotypes as an affirmative and optimistic objective for this region of SE Oregon.
We will try to keep us all current as to the process and outcome — but if anyone hears anything — please don’t hesitate to let us know!
In the meantime, may the miracles of survival and adaptation in the shadow of the Steens Mountains continue, and may more wonders and beauty of life be affirmed, in the months and years to come.
© Kortum of Discovery, June 2014