Pika may signal change

Because pika cannot survive high temperatures, climate change is driving them to higher elevations and threatening some populations.

As you start hiking through the talus, watching the clouds gather overhead, you hear it. A very distinct squeak. Did your dog find a squeaky toy hidden in the rocks? Probably not. Then you hear it again and start scanning the rocks for that adorable, furry, squeaky little mammal making those sounds. Finally, you find it - a pika! Sitting out on the rocks, announcing to its fellow pikas that a possible predator (you) is close by!

While many people believe that pikas are rodents, like squirrels or chipmunks, they are actually lagomorphs - in the same scientific order as rabbits. There are 30 species of pika in the world, with just one species in Colorado - the American pika. They are rather small, weighing only about 4 to 6 ounces, and measuring 6 to 8 inches long.

These small mammals are active either during the day or at dawn and dusk, depending on how hot the day is. Their thick fur and round bodies that conserve heat, although great in the winter, make it dangerous for pikas to be out in the hot sun for too long in the summer.

Pikas are active year-round, although we only see them in the short mountain summer, scurrying around above 10,000 feet in the talus. During this time they are constantly eating, as well as collecting and drying food that they will need throughout the winter. In fact, one little pika needs enough grasses, sedges and wildflowers to fill a bathtub to get through the winter. During the winter they are insulated from the extreme cold by the deep snow pack.

Pikas live in colonies, but have their own territories within the colony. Even the young, born in early May, leave their mothers within one month, and must collect enough food for their first winter. They reach maturity in just three months. Pikas can live up to seven years, but usually average three to four years.

Because pikas are found only at high elevations, where it is very cold and snowy in the winter and cool in the summer, research has suggested that they are vulnerable to climate change. Not only have some populations of pika gone extinct in the West (seven of 25 populations found in the Great Basin area), but those that remain are moving farther and farther up in elevation to avoid the heat. In fact, pikas can die with even just brief exposure to temperatures above 80 degrees. This is one reason they must have rocks to hide beneath in the heat of a summer day.

In 2009, pikas were considered for an endangered species designation by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Although in the end, they were not determined to be endangered or threatened, the USFWS did state, "Climate change is a potential threat to the long-term survival of the American pika."

A local nonprofit, Mountain Studies Institute, has teamed up with several other organizations, including the University of Denver, to put together PikaNET, a citizen-science program to help determine the status of the pika in the southern Rocky Mountains.

With this program, citizens are trained to provide information to researchers and land managers about the pika. This includes locating pika, pika signs (such as hay piles and scat, aka poop) and the vegetation found near pika. The next two trainings for PikaNET will be in mid- to late August in Silverton and Telluride.

Contact Adrienne Antonsen at MSI for more information at vista@mountainstudies.org or (970) 387-5161 or visit the MSI PikaNET page at http://mountainstudies.org/index.php?q=content/pikanet.

Gabi Morey is education outreach director for the San Juan Mountains Association.