The “Canary in the Coal Mine”
The American pika is a small cold-loving mammal that inhabits high elevation regions of western North America. Found exclusively in rocky talus fields of cool montane ecosystems, American pika have adapted to a very narrow set of living conditions. They do not hibernate, rather relying on the insulating effects of winter snowpack to keep their body temperatures from dropping too low. Summertime highs can be especially dangerous; temperatures above 80° F for over six hours can be lethal to pika.
The adaptations that allow this species to thrive in harsh alpine environments now expose their vulnerability to the changes wrought by a warming climate. Pikas now face shortened periods for food collection, shifts in vegetation variety in alpine meadows and, most directly, reductions of insulating snowpack and warmer summer temperatures causing them to either freeze or overheat. Due to their high country homes and low capacities for extreme temperatures, American pikas are the likely “canary in the coal mine” for alpine environments.
Closely related to the rabbit family, the American pika is a small, herbivorous mammal with thick, light brown fur. It is about six to eight inches long and weighs four to six ounces. They are generally egg-shaped, with rounded ears, short legs, and no visible tail. Pikas make their home between 11,000ft and 14,000ft, burrowing under large rocks found in talus slopes. They are herbivores that cache vegetation in large mounds on talus slopes. Pikas do not hibernate over the winter and require a large source of stored food from nearby fields.
Scientists have already documented local extinctions of pika populations along the lower elevation bounds of the species’ habitat in the Great Basin. The fate of the American pika will likely be determined in the Rocky Mountains, which provide a bulk of the species’ high mountain habitat.
Endangered Species Act – not warranted
In October 2007, the Center for Biological Diversity petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list the American pika as threatened or endangered. After a positive 90-day finding, the USFWS came back with a 12-month finding that listing of American pika as threatened or endangered is not warranted at this time partially due to lack of information. We, along with several other partners, have developed a citizen science research program to gather presence/absence data to supplement our existing knowledge of pikas in the Front Range region.
The Front Range Pika Project is a long term study documenting changes in the distribution of the American pika. Scientists have documented local extirpations of pika along lower elevations of the species’ range, likely due to warming temperatures. The Rocky Mountains provide the bulk of pika habitat, and in a warming world, pika persistence here will determine the species survival. Our trained volunteer citizen scientists collect data at historically pika-occupied sites in the Southern Rockies to contribute to ongoing research and inform conservation efforts. To get involved, please contact us!
Listen to the American Pika’s call