By John Saar Suzanne Adelson
December 21, 1981 12:00 PM

Pity the poor Tecopa pupfish. It led a dog’s life in this world. It never grew to more than an inch or so, had a life span of only two years and spent them in the steamy, salty waters around Death Valley. The tiny creature had endured since the Ice Age in quiet anonymity, and now it has gained its first—and last—headlines. The Interior Department announced last month that the Tecopa pupfish is the only animal ever removed from its 15-year-old endangered species list by reason of extinction. Along with the brontosaurus, the saber-toothed tiger and the passenger pigeon, the Tecopa pupfish has vanished forever from the face of the earth.

It went largely unmourned in its hometown, a California hot-spring resort community of about 300 people, largely because most Tecopans don’t believe the gloomy talk by out-of-town experts. “Extinct, my foot,” scoffs a local bartender. “Just let it rain, and you’ll see hundreds of them. They’re little nuisances—get into the drains and clog them up.” Dallas Schultz believes the iridescent fish darting about the pond of the hot spa he manages are living proof that the fish is thriving. “As far as I’m concerned, they’re pupfish, they’re here in Tecopa, so they’re our Tecopa pupfish.”

Such homespun logic carries no weight with the scientist who believes he made the last verified sighting of the now extinct species. “It was 1942,” recalls Dr. Robert Rush Miller, professor of biological sciences and curator of fishes at the University of Michigan. “I was collecting them for my thesis, and I studied them for six years.” When Dr. Miller returned to look for the fish in 1967, he found none. Federal officials contend that natural predators and increased water temperature caused by a new bathhouse were largely responsible for finishing off the pupfish. The fish now populating Tecopa’s ponds belong to one of several other pupfish species.

Over the eons the Tecopa pupfish overcame every obstacle but man. Somehow it adapted to water saturated with minerals and found cool spots where aquatic life was possible. But as the resort developed to accommodate up to 18,000 visitors a month in winter, the fragile environment was shattered. Phil Pister, an associate fishery biologist with the state’s fish and game department, describes the process: “These tiny little habitats where the Tecopa pupfish once lived—little desert ponds no more than 20 feet square—were dried up. The fish just died away.”

Professor Miller sees chilling implications in the passing of the pupfish. “It’s disconcerting,” he says. “It is a symptom of what’s going on in the world. Things are becoming extinct every day now. Not just fish, but populations of organisms wiped out before we even knew they existed.” In Washington last month, experts at a U.S.-sponsored symposium on the world’s biological diversity estimated that as many as a million species may be extinguished by the end of the century. Already the Interior Department has started the paperwork to declare two more of its 192 endangered species extinct—two Great Lakes fish, the blue pike and the long-jaw Cisco. It will soon move to do the same for the Santa Barbara song sparrow, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife spokesman Alan Levitt warns that the Florida dusky seaside sparrow, which lives near Cape Canaveral, won’t be far behind. “There are only five remaining specimens,” he says. “And they’re all males.”

To biologist Pister, the death of a species is a warning to the human race. He compares the Tecopa pupfish to the canaries that miners once took with them into deep shafts to test the air supply. “We all live in the same mine shaft here on this earth,” Pister says. “When you see these animals begin to die, it’s only a matter of time until the habitat change is so severe that man will be affected in the same way.”