My Montana

My Montana
My Montana

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Pika: The Rabbit of the Mountaintops and the Canary of Global Warming

One of the species of wildlife I really wanted to see at Rocky Mountain National Park was a Pika. They are disappearing faster and faster as the earth warms and causes unusual weather events like drought, big winds,  and early or late springs.  Carol didn't disappoint and we got to watch two pika at different locations.

A pica in its preferred habitat

The pika is a seriously cute little animal - it's a fist-sized rabbit relative with Mickey Mouse ears.  It lives in the lower edges of talus fields at high elevations, usually above 7000 feet.  This is a  microenvironment where it can maintain its temperature.  Rabbits can't physically regulate their temperature very well and this one is so tiny that it can't get too cold, while it can't sweat or pant so can't be in too hot a place.  It doesn't hibernate and is active throughout the winter.   So it can easily get too hot or too cold, both of which can be deadly.  Some research is connecting bigger winter winds with pika demise.  The snow keeps them warm during the winter and needs to remain until the temperatures moderate. Also, it feeds very close to its den so if something happens to its food supply, around its den, it may not live.  And it the year is unusual and spring comes late, it may run out of food and starve or at least not be able to breed. Apparently only the babies go off to find a home.  They have been documented to travel up to 1.8 miles.  But they seem to remain in that place for the rest of their 3-4 year life, so their home needs to supply their needs.

It would often run back and shelter in the rocks, only to come back out if we stood still

Pika collect many kinds of plants and stacks them to dry under rocks to build up their winter food. Some of these plants are toxic when fresh, but the poisonous chemicals disappear while drying. I was interested to see one of the Pica I was watching apparently eating lichens off the rocks. Another cut down almost a third of the plant is was sitting by when I photographed it. I waited to get an action shot, but he ran so fast I couldn't see him in my viewfinder. I was amazed at the size of the plant material he was able to haul off.

Getting a snack only feet away from its den

This pika seemed to be eating the lichens off the rock

Another food source

Immediately after I took this picture, the pika bit off almost 1/3 of the plant to its right
and raced away up a rocky slope with it. The plant was easily three times as long  and
wide as it was. 

This pika spent a lot of time sitting interspersed with running, and eating. 

In many areas, pika are moving higher up the mountains and scientists think the species may be one of the first mammals to go extinct, as the rate of global warming increases and they reach the top of their individual mountains.  Other studies show that the pika is an indicator of good amounts of both winter snow and of underground water and ice, all of which supply water to people in many western states.  So it is often considered the "canary" of global warming - as it goes so may we.

Pikas are often found co-existing with marmots and this was the case with the first pika we found. The marmots live higher and among larger rocks.  Carol was excited to see an entire family of marmots where she only expected to see one.  Apparently mom and babies were in their den when she came by while helping with a geology tour in the park. I was too far to get any of the babies but we think we saw four that were about a third the size of the parents.

The marmot pair

Think this was the mom - saw it touch noses with a baby

I found some interesting sites when I looked for current research on Pika. Here are a few links, if you are interested in learning more about these animals.

If you live in any of the states that have pika, you might want to get involved in Citizen Science projects to help document where they are currently living. And if you will be in any of these places for your vacation, you can also contribute data.

Only if we can slow the rate of global warming will these animals continue to share our planet