Looking for Climate Change’s Most Vulnerable Species

On the trail on the tiny mountain-dwelling mammal hit hard by the effects of climate change.

For anyone who has spent time out West at high elevations scrambling around talus mountain tops, the ‘eep, eep’ of the America pika is a familiar and welcome sound. The small mammal, most closely related to rabbits and hares, makes its home in the nooks and crannies of rocky slopes that provide cover from predators and offer cooler temperatures during summer. This objectively cute species has carved out a niche is these areas, but as the effects and impacts of climate change intensify, these alpine ecosystems and the species that have evolved with them are under increasing threat, and no animal better exemplifies this looming problem than the American pika.

Pikas in Peril

Unlike other alpine species, pikas do not hibernate during winter. They depend on thick fur and deep winter snows to act as insulation against high winds and extreme temperatures. Although it may sound counterintuitive, when snow fills in the rocky nooks where pikas reside, it keeps them warm and protected from whipping winter winds when temperatures drop far below zero. With less snow falling on average, pikas have become exposed to the elements and are less able to survive the cold season.

During the summer season, as temperatures increase, pikas once again become susceptible to the elements. They don’t shed that thick coat even in summer, and due to their diminutive size, they have a tough time regulating their body temperatures. When outside temps climb above 75 degrees Fahrenheit, they can easily overheat and die. In the past, these alpine areas rarely reached above 70 degrees Fahrenheit, but with global temperatures consistently breaking records on an annual basis, these formerly cool areas are getting hotter and hotter, making it tough for pikas to hold on.

Furthermore, while some species can migrate and find new, better suited areas, tiny pikas never move very far. Even if they were better travelers, the valleys between mountaintops are usually too warm for them, which means their only option is to move upslope seeking cooler temperatures. The problem with that of course is that eventually they will run out of mountain. Whereas habitat fragmentation from development has been the leading cause for most species decline, pikas are unique in that the remoteness of their preferred habitat has kept it safe. Pikas still occupy the same talus slopes they’ve lived in for hundreds of years, so unlike other species, pikas largest, almost singular threat comes from the effects of our changing climate.

Searching for Solutions

Because pikas are such important harbingers of climate change, researchers have taken an increasing interest in their conservation, and at the beginning of June, Defenders of Wildlife and a handful of volunteers had a unique opportunity to join a research crew from the University of New Mexico (UNM) in Bandelier National Monument for the second year of a multi-year study on the status of pikas in northern New Mexico.

Along with a U.S. Geological Survey team, the crews are monitoring northern New Mexico’s pika populations in the Sangre de Cristo and Jemez Mountains to learn where pikas are doing well and where their populations have declined. So far, this research has shown that at high elevations, above 3,000 meters (9800 feet), pikas have continued to do well. But at lower elevations, the losses have been significant – from 33 percent loss in occupancy rates in parts of the Great Basin to 100 percent loss in Zion National Park. One of the major questions for the researchers is what factors are contributing to pikas’ survival at certain low-elevation sites but not others?

After a short training session, our group caravanned to a discrete roadside pull-off where we split into groups, divided gear, including GPS units, compasses and inclinometers, and headed down, off the road to four separate low-elevation talus patches where we would look for pikas.

Pikas are most active in the mornings and the evenings, so from 4 PM until just after dark, a little past 8 o’clock, our group carefully combed over two distinct talus patches listening for the signature ‘eep-eeps’ and looking for droppings (which resemble peppercorns), hay piles and with any luck, actual pikas. Each member of the team traversed a different part of the slope, taking time to bend down and peer into crevices and at points dig out piles of dirt to uncover old scat.

Upon finding evidence of pikas, we recorded the information on the data sheet, making sure to also catalogue the angle of the slope, its aspect (its compass direction from 0-360 degrees), as well as the surrounding vegetation and the percentage of ground cover. By collecting information on all these different factors, researchers will be able to hopefully determine which of them are most important factors in which low-elevation areas are still suitable for pikas.

As afternoon stretched into evening, the temperature cooled and eventually we heard the “eep, eep” we’d been hoping for—our first evidence pikas still occupied this patch!  The sing-song call of the pika was extra sweet for the UNM crew that hadn’t been able to confirm pikas in the area on previous visits to the site. We watched and waited hoping to get a visual, but with sunset quickly approaching, we were compelled to start our slog back up to the road. We didn’t get to see any pikas, but we were rewarded with a fantastic sunset to accompany us on our return hike and we left with the song of the American pika fresh in our ears.

Save the Planet, Save the Pika

(C) Vaughn CottmanTo significantly curb the impacts of climate change will require large scale policy shifts like those agreed upon in the Paris Climate Agreement that President Trump pulled the country out of earlier this month. But even in the face of the Trump administration’s rejection of climate-smart policy, we can still help fight to preserve the pika. By learning more about how and where pikas have best coped with the effects of climate change, land and wildlife managers can make better decisions to maximize the chances pikas will persevere.  Defenders will do our part to help these efforts and continue to advocate for wildlife put at risk due to climate change. By working together, we can be assured that for generations to come there will be ‘eep-eeps’ waiting to greet us whenever we visit our favorite alpine retreats.

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