It is a living relic of the Ice Age, a creature that ekes out its uncertain existence from a brackish pool in Death Valley. And it may become extinct unless a Claremont biologist can find it a new home.
The creature is called the Mojave chub, a small, unremarkable fish that has remained unchanged for more than 11,000 years. The fish evolved when Death Valley was wet and marshy and the surrounding mountains covered by glaciers, but as the lakes and rivers dried up, the chubs began to disappear.
Now its natural habitat is limited to one small pond at Soda Springs, about 10 miles southwest of Baker. Just 4 to 12 inches long, about 5,000 of the tan, silver-bottomed chubs live in the pond, a remnant of what was once a huge system of lakes and rivers but which is now the only above-ground moisture for miles around. The chub has had trouble adapting to the increasingly harsh desert conditions, but while the pond is warmer and saltier than it would seem to prefer, it can continue to exist there.
But the chub has more than the desert to contend with.
The Mojave Water Agency, which serves nearby towns, wants the Army Corps of Engineers to approve an expansion of the Mojave Forks Dam, which sits on the Mojave River about 70 miles southwest of Soda Springs. The modification would divert water from the river into an underwater basin, where it would be kept in reserve for cities such as Victorville and Barstow. While the thirsty citizens of those towns might benefit, the chub eventually would die because the flow of water to Soda Springs would be stopped.
Biology professor Robert Feldmeth of Claremont McKenna College, hired by the federal Bureau of Land Management to find alternative habitats for the federally protected chub, wants to save the species from annihilation and grows passionate when he speaks in the fish's defense.
"People say to me, 'What good is it?' " Feldmeth said. "You can't eat it and it's not worth anything commercially; why protect it?' But they have been there for hundreds of thousands of years. It's a shame to have one species, man, come in and foul things up."
Although Feldmeth acknowledges that "there is really no good, clear reason to keep it," he said the fish is a valuable link to a mysterious past and may one day help scientists unravel the secrets of evolution.
Much of the reason for the chub's survival may lie in its astonishing lack of anything to attract the interest of humans, Feldmeth said. Aside from making poor eating, the chub is rather common looking as fish go, a wallflower in the world of endangered species. It lacks the glamour and public appeal of, say, a California condor, a blue whale or a Florida manatee.
But the chub's unattractiveness may ultimately prove its undoing. If the Corps of Engineers allows the dam to be modified, Feldmeth said he is worried that the public, generous with its sympathy when it comes to pandas and arctic seal cubs, may be less than overwhelmed with concern for the plight of the homely, prehistoric fish.
"A bird or a mammal kind of instills an emotional feeling about preservation," Feldmeth said. "But it's hard to get excited about a fish."
Feldmeth began studying the chub in 1983 under a grant from the Navy, which was trying to deal with a chub problem of its own.
The Endangered Species Act requires public agencies to show that a proposed change in a protected animal's habitat either will not harm the animal or can be compensated for by moving it to another location.
In 1971, a year after the chub was placed on the endangered species list, a few of the fish were transplanted from Soda Springs to a sewage treatment runoff pool at the China Lake Naval Weapons Center in Ridgecrest in hopes of improving the chub's chances for survival.
Two years ago the Navy wanted to expand the sewage system, but was worried about possible harm to the chub.
Feldmeth found that the change would not harm the fish. But he is convinced that the chub's best chance for survival is not in the artificial environment of a runoff pond.
So he has been testing, mapping and tracking his way through the Mojave desert, where he has found two possible sites. But neither is ideal, he says. Neither has existing fish populations, which Feldmeth says might be a sign that something in the ponds could kill off the chubs. And the ponds are so small that they would be able to sustain only a fraction of the present chub population, he said.
The choice of alternative sites is limited because of the existence of the arroyo chub, a more modern and adaptable cousin of the Mojave chub. The arroyo chub was introduced to Southern California lakes and rivers by fishermen in the early 1930s.
Moving into a pond with its relative could ruin the pure genetic stock of the Mojave chub because of the two species' propensity to interbreed, Feldmeth said.
As Feldmeth continues his research, the Army Corps of Engineers must decide whether to allow the dam to be modified. All corps officials would say is that a decision is expected in a few months.
Thomas H. Irwin, vice president of the Mojave Water Agency's board of directors, says the modification of the dam is needed to control flooding and store water for emergencies.
"There's a big interest here (in the project)" Irwin said. "We have more and more water problems, and it's a shame to see water sit out on a dry lake and evaporate when it's worth a couple hundred dollars an acre-foot."
Finding a suitable home for the fish is an uphill battle that is likely to get harder as society continues to encroach upon the chub's environment, he said.
But to him, saving the fish is worth the trouble.
"I guess you could argue that the Ice Age is over, so why worry about it," he said. "But it's kind of neat that they've clung all this time. I think saving the species is a desirable goal to work toward."