Desert Pupfish - Illustration by Bill Singleton

Desert Pupfish

Cyprinodon macularius macularius


A small fish (approximately two inches long) with a smoothly rounded body shape and narrow, vertical dark bars on the sides. Breeding males are blue on the top and sides and have yellow to orange (sometimes red-orange) fins. Females and juveniles have tan to olive colored backs and silvery sides.1 As compared to the Quitobaquito pupfish, the desert pupfish have a narrower head, mouth and body. The bottom fins are longer and the head tends to be deeper with the jaw longer than other pupfish populations.2

Pupfish occupy shallow waters of springs, small streams and marshes. They are often associated with areas with soft channel bottoms and clear water.3

Total Range:
Historic range includes the lower Gila River basin, including the Gila, Santa Cruz, San Pedro, and Salt rivers as well as the lower Colorado River in Arizona, California and adjacent Mexican states from the vicinity of Needles downstream to the Gulf of California. Presently, the only remaining natural populations are found in a few sites in the Salton Sea drainage in California and the Colorado Delta in Baja California and Sonora, Mexico.4

Desert pupfish (and pupfish in general) can tolerate salinity levels three times that of seawater and temperatures that exceed 35(C)95(F). Pupfish can be tenacious if habitat is maintained and exotic fish are eliminated.1

Eggs are deposited randomly in a male's territory. Breeding males aggressively defend their territories during the breeding season. There is no direct parental care, but activities of the male may serve that purpose.

The Desert Pupfish is omnivorous; it eats small aquatic insects, crustaceans and plants.

In 1986, the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the Desert Pupfish as "endangered" under the Endangered Species Act.5 The species is listed as a "Wildlife Species of Concern" by the Arizona Game and Fish Department (1996 in prep) and a "Sensitive" species by the U.S. Forest Service (1988).2 A recovery plan has been developed for this species.

Desert Pupfish in Pima County:
No natural populations remain in Pima County. The pupfish was eliminated from the Santa Cruz River at Tucson by 1904.6 The Santa Cruz River pupfish may have been genetically distinct from the surviving populations.7 A subspecies of the pupfish, the Quitobaquito pupfish, occurs in Quitobaquito Pond in Organ Pipe National Monument. Several facilities in Tucson including the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum, Tohono Chul Park, and the International Wildlife Museum have captive populations.



1. Minckley, W. L. 1973. Fishes of Arizona. Arizona Game and Fish Department, Phoenix. pp. 186-192

2. Arizona Game and Fish Department. Unpublished Abstract, Heritage Data Management System. April 1999

3. USDI, Fish and Wildlife Service. 1993. Desert Pupfish Recovery Plan. Phoenix. p. 67
4. USDI, Fish and Wildlife Service. 1998. Endangered and Threatened Species of Arizona. pp. 49-50

5. U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 1986. Endangered and Threatened Wildlife and plants; determination of endangered status and critical habitat for the desert pupfish. Federal Register 51 (61):10842:10850

6. Zander, M. and Jennings M. 1986. Site Specific Water Quality Criteria Study for the Santa Cruz River. Harding Lawson Associates. Job No. 17,144,010.01. p. 73

7. Minckley, W.L., Robert Rush Miller, and Steven Mark Norris. 2002. "Three New Pupfish Species, Cyprinodon (Telostei, Cyprinodontidae), from Chihuahua, Mexico, and Arizona, USA." Copeia. Vol. 2002, No. 3. pp. 687-705.


back to Threatened & Endangered Fact Sheets

back to Priority Vulnerable Species Fact Sheets