The American pika (Ochotona princeps) tickles many hikers fancies with its intolerable cuteness. Belonging to the order Lagomorpha, they strongly resemble their rabbit relatives from their round, fluffy bodies to the lattice like characteristics of their skulls. The color of their fur varies throughout the year. In the winter, their fur is longer and contains more grey hues. In the summer, the length of their fur shortens as the shade shifts to a cinnamon brown color. Their fur camouflages them perfectly into their habitat allowing them to avoid common predators like birds of prey, foxes, bobcats, and weasels.
If they manage to successfully evade predators, pikas can live from four to seven years, but many may die at even earlier ages in the future.
American pikas inhabit talus slopes along mountains, cliffs, and hillsides near montane meadows. They thrive in cool, high-elevation areas within the Rocky mountains spanning across Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Idaho, Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada, Utah, and New Mexico.
They are communal creatures and rely on their colonies for protection. Whenever a predator is in the area, the pikas emit a warning call alerting other members of their colony to danger. These calls are also the easiest way for us to determine their presence.
Although they are gregarious, they are also territorial. Each pika has its own home range radiating approximately 50 meters from its den.
Pikas are diurnal and do not hibernate throughout the cold, snowy winters. For winter sustenance, they “hay” all summer by collecting grasses, weeds, and tall flowers. They deposit the flora in their dens to consume throughout the winter. Before the deposition, they occasionally lay the grasses and flowers out in the sun in order to dry them and protect them from mold. Furthermore, pikas intelligently discern which plants to eat when. They have the ability to consume poisonous plants, but they wait to eat them until late winter, when their toxins have had ample time to decompose.
Climate Change Past Consequences
Studies have concluded that pika distributions have been shrinking and moving upslope.
National Parks Service wildlife biologists extensively study the current distribution of pikas and compare it with distributions in the past. The studies have concluded that pika distributions have been shrinking and moving upslope. More specifically, over one third of previously surveyed pika habitat now exists devoid of pikas. Pika’s current niche habitat covers less than five percent of the earth’s surface, and its average temperature has already increased one degree Fahrenheit over the last 100 years. Over the next century, the temperature is projected to increase up to 14.5 degrees Fahrenheit.
Climate Change Future Threats
Being primarily adapted to cold alpine environments, an alpine obligate, pikas react sensitively to high temperatures. Pikas can perish after being exposed to temperatures above even 78 degrees Fahrenheit. They seek solace from the sun beneath the cool talus rocks, but if the temperature increases as it it projected in climate change models, they may be unable to escape the heat. Since they already reside at the tops of mountains, they cannot move up in elevation for cooler temperatures, and they most certainly cannot move down slope.
Being primarily adapted to cold alpine environments, an alpine obligate, pikas react sensitively to high temperatures.
Not only do higher temperatures threaten pikas, but the decreased snowpack resulting from them could also harm them. In the winter, pikas live insulated in their dens from the cold by the snow itself. If there isn’t enough snowpack and the pikas are excessively cold, then they will be using more energy for thermoregulation and could starve.
Lastly other species moving into newly desirable areas – the warmer pika habitat – could displace the pikas. Unpalatable vegetation could replace their desired plant diet. New predators and pests could outcompete the pikas and drive them to extinction as well.
The possible loss of the presently ubiquitous pika could be the United State’s first obvious disappearance of a species due to climate change.
The possible loss of the presently ubiquitous pika could be the United State’s first obvious disappearance of a species due to climate change. It hasn’t happened yet, but it is in the projection for our future. Will we do anything to stop possible extinctions now, or will we ignore this potential outcome and go about our daily lives unaffected by recent research? Do we even care about the loss of a species if it stems from our actions or lack thereof? How do you feel about climate change? How do you feel about your personal impact on the environment? How do you feel about life beyond yourself?