Global Warming Could Soon Land Hamster-Like Pika on the Endangered List

By Rachel Cernansky | April 7, 2009 2:27 pm

pika.jpgThe American pika, a short-legged, hamster-sized fur ball that huddles in high mountain slopes [AP] and inhabits 10 Western states, may become the first species in the lower 48 states to be listed as endangered due to global warming. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will decide by May 1 whether or not the pika, whose populations are dwindling, should be studied in depth and included on the endangered species list.

Studies have shown that the little animals have already been forced to higher altitudes because of rising temperatures; one study in particular, from 2005, showed that pikas lived at 5,700 feet above sea level at one point, but now average higher than 8,000 feet. They are now running out of mountain and face possible extinction if average temperatures continue to push higher [The Guardian].  The pika is “feeling an exaggerated brunt of global warming. Unlike others, it can’t move north. It’s stuck” [AP], said Greg Loarie, an environmental lawyer.

Part of the problem is that the pika’s peculiar traits are suited for alpine conditions: dense fur, slow reproductivity and a thermal regulation system that doesn’t do well when temperatures get above about 78 degrees. “There’s not a lot of wiggle room with these guys,” [geologist Erik] Beever said, referring to the small difference between pikas’ mean body temperature and the temperature at which they die [AP]. But not everyone agrees that the pika is endangered. While they face serious threats in certain parts of the West where global warming is expected to produce the most drastic temperature changes in the country, their populations seem to be holding steadier in other areas, such as the Sierra Nevada mountains.

The upcoming decision by the Fish and Wildlife Service is a result of a federal lawsuit brought by the Center for Biological Diversity to protect the pika, but the pika’s inclusion on the endangered species list will pose a whole set of new questions similar to ones raised when the polar bear was listed last year. That decision was quickly followed by regulations that ensured projects, even if they contributed to global warming, would not be blocked. And it’s unclear exactly what steps could be taken to protect the pika from climate change. Recovery plans could address other specific threats such as grazing or roads—or target certain pika subspecies—but climate change has international causes and implications [AP].

Related Content:
DISCOVER: Polar Bears (Finally) Make the Endangered Species List
80beats: Investigating the Death of Macho B, America’s Last Known Wild Jaguar
80beats: Bye Bye Birdie? One-Third of American Birds Are in Decline
80beats: The World’s Endangered Species List Is Endangered
80beats: Should Humans Relocate Animals Threatened by Global Warming?
80beats: Plants “Climb” Mountains to Escape Global Warming

Image: Flickr / mahalie

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Living World
  • Valerie Fellows

    The Fish and Wildlife Service’s upcoming May 1 decision is not a determination of whether or not to add the American pika to the federal list of threatened and endangered species. The upcoming decision simply means that the Service will determine whether or not the petition submitted by the Center for Biological Diversity contains enough substantial information indicating that listing may be warranted. If the Service does decide that the petition contains substantial information, then they will conduct an in-depth examination of all the scientific information related to the American pika and its habitat. During the status review, which takes about one year, the Service will solicit scientific information from the public, state and federal natural resource agencies and all interested parties regarding the American pika.

    Then there are three possible outcomes of the status review: 1) listing is not warranted; 2) listing is warranted and the Service would publish a proposal to add the pika to the list of threatened and endangered species, which comes with another opportunity for public comment; or 3) listing is warranted by precluded by higher priority actions. If the Service decides that listing is warranted and publish a proposal to list, it will take one year to make a final listing determination.

    In summary, even if the process moves as smoothly and quickly as possible, deciding whether or not the pika warrants Endangered Species Act protection, is years away.

  • Eliza Strickland

    Thanks very much for the clarification, Valerie!

  • patrick

    They better try to keep those furry little fellas alive.

  • http://msn roger

    Attn. Valerie Fellows – your third “possible outcome” of the status review does not look right to me. Did you mean “3) listing is warranted BUT precluded by higher priority actions”? Supposing my re-wording is correct, if the Service decides the Pika issue deserves a #3, is this a “The Final Decision,” or is the issue put on a “To-Do” list with the possibility of a re-hearing when priorities change?

  • Valerie Fellows

    Attn: Roger – you are correct, I left out the BUT in the third option. My apologies! After conducting the in-depth scientific review, the Service could determine that listing is warranted, but immediate preparation of a proposed listing is precluded by the need to work on pending listing proposals of higher priority. The pika would then become a candidate for listing and its status reviewed annually. When the higher priority listing actions have been addressed for other species, a proposed listing rule would be prepared and issued for public comment. I hope that clarifies,

  • http://msn roger

    Attn: Valerai Fellows –
    Thank you for the clarification. I get the feeling polar bears may not be saved after all, given these slow-moving procedures.


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!


80beats is DISCOVER's news aggregator, weaving together the choicest tidbits from the best articles covering the day's most compelling topics.

See More

Collapse bottom bar