FoCo Now
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FoCo Now

Three reasons why the American pika is disappearing

Wildlife are feeling the adverse effects of climate change today, especially those that inhabit alpine regions, like the pika.

(Image|Bishi Das|Colorado 14ers)

The pika is perhaps one of the most at-risk species from climate change. This cute little mammal, whom Pikachu was inspired by, belongs to the family Lagomorpha, which also includes the rabbits and hares. They live at high mountainous elevations in taluses, or rock piles, throughout western North America. Local extirpations are occurring at the lower elevations because populations are having to move higher up the mountains. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has declined to list the American pika as endangered because they are only disappearing in certain parts of their range. That could change though as the climate continues to warm faster than these mammals can adapt.

1. Pikas are overheating

The American pika is a mammal suited for the alpine, with insulating fur and a high metabolic rate. They have a very narrow suitable habitat, which is growing narrower as they must continue to move to higher elevations so as to not overheat during the summer. Pikas cannot survive temperatures over around 78 degrees Fahrenheit for more than a couple of hours. One study found that where pikas were seen only a couple years earlier in Utah and Northern California now shows no signs of pika life.

“File:American Pika range.png” by User:Chermundy is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

2. Snowpack is declining

Even though pikas are adapted for the cold, they still require a snowpack to insulate them on the harshest winter days. In the last 100 years, snowpack has decreased by about 20% in the western US. Snow is melting earlier in the spring, destroying the insulation pikas depend on, and causing them to either freeze to death, or lower their reproductive output when temperatures are extreme. Less snow also means less water irrigating the plants that pikas gather in the spring and summer.

3. Lack of quality forage

Pikas spend their summers caching food for the winter, but when temperatures are at their maximum they must remain in their rocky crevices to stay cool. This decreases the time needed to gather enough forage to last through the winter. Early spring snow melt also contributes to the pikas demise by destroying the insulation the snow provides. Without that insulation, their cached food supply is more likely to dry out, losing vital nutrients needed for them to bear the cold. Pikas tend to inhabit isolated areas where they can only go so far in search of food, and they can only move so high up until the forage they depend on stops growing.

(Image|Bérengère Yar|Colorado 14ers)

Pikas are an indicator species of climate change, meaning scientists can look at their populations to assess the state of the surrounding environment. While pikas have vanished throughout much of the west, there is still time to help Colorado’s local pika populations. See what you can do for the American pika here.

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