Death Valley




Text modified from Abell et al. 2000. Freshwater Ecoregions of North America: A Conservation Assessment. Island Press, Washington, DC, USA. Additional text provided by Jennifer Hales.


United States

Major Habitat Type

Xeric freshwaters and endorheic (closed) basins

Drainages flowing into

Death Valley is an endorheic basin defined by the drainages of the Owens, Amargosa, and Mojave rivers (Sada et al. 1995).

Main rivers to other water bodies

This area has few large lakes or perennially flowing rivers and streams, but abundant springs rising along faults instead provide much of the habitat available to freshwater species. Water flowing from these springs is 8,000-12,000 years old and originates in southern and eastern Nevada (Minckley et al. 1986).



Death Valley comprises the southwest corner of the Great Basin and dominates central southern California and reaches into southwestern Nevada. Included in the ecoregion are the eastern slopes of the southern portion of the Sierra Nevada Mountains and the northeastern slopes of the Transverse Range.


North-south trending mountains and valleys with numerous faults characterize this landscape (Minkley et al. 1986). While most of the Mojave region lies between 610 and 1,220 m, Badwater Basin lies at - 86 m, the lowest point in North America (Ricketts et al. 1999).

Freshwater habitats

This ecoregion contains some of the most extreme conditions inhabited by freshwater life and its biota has been extensively studied. Ash Meadows, covering an area of about 756 km2, is of particular interest, as its more than 30 springs and seeps create an oasis in the middle of the desert (Williams et al. 1985). Devils Hole is the highest in elevation of these springs, at 732 m. With increasing elevation, springs have been isolated from each other for a longer time, and springs only a kilometer apart may have been isolated for thousands of years (Williams et al. 1985). In this arid area groundwater recharge is so slow that the aquifers supplying springs such as Devils Hole contain fossil water (Pister 1990).

Terrestrial habitats

Xeric shrublands and desert vegetation characterize much of this ecoregion, with saltpans devoid of vegetation in the lowest elevations to sub-alpine habitats on mountain peaks. Dominant plants include creosote bush (Larrea tridentata), all-scale (Atriplex polycarpa), brittlebush (Encelia farinosa), desert holly (Atriplex hymenelytra), white burrobush (Hymenoclea salsola), and Joshua tree (Yucca brevifolia) (Turner 1994).

Description of endemic fishes

Within the ecoregion, there are five endemic fish species. The number of endemic fish forms increases if subspecies are included, as some authors argue is appropriate given the degree of differentiation observed in forms associated with distinct, persistent water bodies (Minckley et al. 1986; Sada et al. 1995). With the exception of the fish in the Owens River and Mojave River basins, all of the endemic freshwater species in this ecoregion are associated with springs or spring margins. Given the minute amount of freshwater available in this ecoregion, this biodiversity is truly impressive.

The endemic fish come from four families, with subspecies of two minnows (Rhinichthys osculus and Gila bicolor), one sucker species (Catostomus fumeiventris), the extinct Ash Meadows killifish (Empetrichthys merriami), and four pupfish (Cyprinodon radiosus, C. diabolis, C. nevadensis, and C. salinus). Of these, five subspecies of C. nevadensis and two of C. salinus are recognized, as are three subspecies of speckled dace (R. osculus) (Sada et al. 1995). The Devil’s Hole pupfish (C. diabolis) is distinguished by having the smallest range of any vertebrate species—23 square yards in a spring-fed, limestone cavern in Ash Meadows (Williams et al. 1985; Sada et al. 1995). The species is tiny, rarely exceeding 20 mm standard length, and populations fluctuate seasonally from between 150 and 400 individuals (Williams et al. 1985). The two forms of the Salt Creek pupfish (C. salinus) live between 180 and 240 feet below sea level, where temperatures can reach 130 °F (Sigler & Sigler 1994).

Justification for delineation

Ecoregion boundaries are taken from Abell et al. (2000) and are based on subregions defined by Maxwell et al. (1995).


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