Monday, April 26, 2010

Pikas in a Warming World

On a mountain hike this summer, you might see a little fur-ball darting amongst rocky slopes. Chances are, it's a pika--a relative of rabbits and hares, with short legs and rounded ears. There are thirty species around the world, all associated with high mountain habitats. For many hikers, they're a favorite animal, one of those critters that makes you smile when you see them.

They've also become one of the Idaho animals most associated with climate change.

Pikas, after all, thrive in cool, rocky mountain climates. As lower elevations warm, pikas are cut off from reaching new habitat areas; essentially, they become stranded on habitat "islands."

When species are confined to small areas, they become much more threatened by lack of genetic variation, disease, fire, predators and other factors.

Is the pika doomed as the world warms?

Earlier this year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declined to list the American pika under the Endangered Species Act. It noted that, while some pika populations may disappear at lower elevations, climate change would not pose a risk to long-term survival of the species.

The agency's report also suggested that pikas may be able to adapt to warmer conditions.

Is that possible for an animal so tied to cool temperatures.

Interestingly, a population of pikas at Craters of the Moon National Monument suggests that perhaps pikas can adapt. Unlike many pika habitats, Craters is often hot and dry.

There, pikas become inactive during the heat of the day, seeking shelter in lava tubes and crevasses. They breed and thrive in the expansive monument.

This population still raises more questions than answers. How long did it take for pikas to adapt to the lava fields? Can they find similar shade on a mountain top? Will warmer mountain habitats become home to predators that more effectively hunt pikas?

It is difficult to know. Probably the most important lesson here is the need for large, intact habitats. In large protected areas, species have room to adapt and move. In small patches, species often disappear. As the world warms, now more than ever we need protected, connected natural areas--for pikas and for so many other wildlife species. --Matt Miller

Photo by Justin Johnsen under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

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