Blog Post Katherine McKinney DeGroff Feb 18, 2014

Feeling the Heat

The American pika is highly sensitive to rising temperatures, and climate change threatens its very survival. Park researchers in the West are studying the effects warming is having on this vulnerable park species.

It’s startlingly sunny and windswept beside the lake I have hiked two hours uphill to see in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness of Colorado. My shoes and socks are off, my muscles are the good kind of tired, and I’m sitting on a rock in the middle of a scree field next to water that is a glacial blue. As I make my way through a celebratory peanut butter and jelly sandwich, I notice that one of my discarded socks has started to move.

I’m a bit unnerved until I realize that a petite pika has taken it for his prize and started the scramble back to his home among the rocks. I smile. I laugh. And, then, I realize I’m going to be stranded, sockless, unless I do something soon.

So, I make some noise. The sock drops. A moment later I hear the pika’s tell-tale “meeeee” ringing out from a nearby lair. I feel a bit guilty, but my left foot thanks me on my return hike down the mountain.

Above: The tell-tale sound of a pika call.

I love pikas. I think I’ve loved them ever since I learned what they were, but I especially love them now that I’ve had such a memorable encounter. I’d been hoping to see one for some time, and it’s poetic that my first glimpse of the American pika happened alongside American Lake.

American pikas, or Ochotona princeps, are related to rabbits and have such compact bodies that, when they aren’t extending themselves in any direction, they resemble a furry hacky sack with eyes. Weighing in at about six ounces, their ears are small and round, their legs are short, and their tails are practically nonexistent. This body shape uniquely prepares them for cold weather. Pikas live in rugged, high elevations amid tumbled fields of rock, and their mottled tawny coloring enables them to blend nicely with their surroundings. Perhaps one of their most distinctive features—besides their ability to stuff disproportionately vast quantities of vegetation into their mouths—is their characteristic call. You may not always see a pika, but you can usually hear it.

As their range is limited to high-elevation mountaintops (sometimes referred to as sky islands, owing to their isolation and unique climate), they are heavily impacted by climate change. Even a mild, 78-degree day can be fatal to a pika. With warming temperatures, some species may be able to adapt by moving to higher ground to escape the heat. But, if you’re already at the top, where do you go?

Already, whole communities of pikas have disappeared from some areas, and experts are concerned. A special team of scientists, researchers, and park staff are studying the impacts of climate change on the American pika in several western parks. Funded through the National Park Service Climate Change Response Program, the Pikas in Peril project aims to understand the distribution of pikas, the connectivity of their populations, and their vulnerability to a warming world. By learning more about this species, the researchers also hope to get a better handle on the current rate and magnitude of climate change in these states.

For my part, I hope my great grand-nieces and great grand-nephews will one day have the opportunity to have their own mountaintop picnic interrupted by a mischievous pika.

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For your best chance to see pikas in a national park, take a hike on a mountain trail that crosses some scree fields in Western parks such as Crater Lake in Oregon, Rocky Mountain in Colorado, Grand Teton in Wyoming, and Lassen Volcanic in California.

Learn more about the Pikas in Peril Project.

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