Pikas Are Disappearing from California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains

By Carl Engelking | August 30, 2017 1:16 pm

Pikas are related to rabbits and live at high elevations in the mountains of North America. Climate change is shrinking the areas where they can live. (Credit: Alison Henry)

According to a survey from Yale University’s Program on Climate Change Communication, 70 percent of Americans think global warming is happening, but only 40 percent believe it will harm them personally.

But what if those same people who believe they are somehow immune from harm were told climate change is being blamed for the demise of an adorable, fuzzy, innocent creature? Oh, the feels.

Things, perhaps, just got personal.

That’s exactly what’s playing out in a 165-square-mile stretch of California’s northern Sierra Nevada mountains. In this corner of the country, the American pika has entirely disappeared and gone elsewhere, and researchers are saying this is the largest area of pika extirpation—vanishing from a particular area while existing elsewhere—ever reported. It’s a shift that’s opened a large gap in the population distribution in the area, and driven a rift between populations to the east and to the west.

Pika’s have a rapid metabolism and they generate a lot of heat. In winter, rather than hibernate, they amass haypiles and use their fur to stay warm and burrow into the snow. But the cooler climes in high altitudes are growing warmer, and that’s left the pika’s vulnerable to overheating in summer. When it’s too hot during summer, the critters don’t gather enough food for colder months.

In a study published Wednesday in the journal PLOS One, researchers from the University of California, Santa Cruz describe a multi-year survey of pikas in an area that runs from Tahoe City to Truckee. Over the course of six years (2011 to 2016), researchers scouted the area for pika scat and other signs of activity.

“We found old pika fecal pellets buried in sediment in nearly every patch of habitat we searched,” UCSC researcher and lead author Joseph Stewart said. “But the animals themselves were conspicuously absent.”

All signs point to a gradual retreat from habitats in lower elevations that are growing warmer. Fortunately, pikas still persist in areas surrounding the focus of the study, but the future doesn’t look bright. Stewart forecasts a roughly 97 percent decline in pika numbers by 2050 if current trends persist in the Lake Tahoe area.

There is some good news: pika populations elsewhere have shown they can adapt to change. American pikas tend to stick pretty close to their native habitats, which has led to the rise of many distinct populations around the country. While pikas prefer cool, rocky, high-altitude environments, Erik Beever, of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Rocky Mountain Science Center, has compiled evidence of pikas making their homes on the shores of lakes and reservoirs, downed logs, slash piles and forests. These habitats may be both cool enough during summer and offer a buffer against bitter winter temperatures.

Beever also found that pika populations, like those in the Columbia River Gorge, have supplement their diet of hay with mosses, which lets them focus on other activities during summer other than building a hay stockpile.

While the Lake Tahoe pika population may be in trouble, pikas in other parts of the country may fare better in an era of change.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, top posts
MORE ABOUT: animals, climate change
  • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

    Transport large numbers of pikas from where there are more, as the California sea otter was hauled from San Francisco to Santa Barbara. Enviro-whiners counted that as a major victory.

    Large numbers of “endangered” vicious 30-pound weasels who voraciously eat commercial seafood had a large fraction migration back plus mortality rate. Import was repeated until the transplant took, big budget employing Enviro-whiners, including forever studies thereafter. Local algal blooms excrete neurotoxic domoic acid controlling seagoing mammal populations.

    If KLIMATE KAOS slashes human population by 97%, I’ll heat my home with coal. Pikas are vectors for bubonic plague and they eat their own scat.

    • Ed Rhoads

      Why the Vermin bashing?

      • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

        Social intent is large when the common denominator is small. One does not mine diamond in limestone, common though it is. The real world is escaping western civilization. Do something.

  • scubablue

    3 years ago I saw a dead one along South bound Hwy 17 between Los Gatos and Summit. And that’s lower elevation.


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