The American pika (Ochotona princeps) is often described as a small rabbit (avocado-sized) with rounded ears like Mickey Mouse. “Cute” is often written in its description. What’s not to love about this adorable little creature as it shouts out “eeee!” from a rock slope, sitting on a boulder, seemingly curled up in itself?
The pika is part of the rabbit family, Lagomorph, (order Lagomorphs), but differs from rabbits and hares as it has less developed hind legs (it doesn’t scamper about as easily as rabbits), has no tail, and wears those goofy Disney ears. A critter known for loving the cold, it molts during the summer, then dons a nice heavy coat for winter. When winter arrives, the pika hunkers down in its snow tunnels under talus (steep and rocky) slopes — they don’t hibernate — surfacing on occasion to forage for food, even as they’ve collected their winter pantry of “haypiles” of grasses and wildflowers.
Because the pika has been described as “an indicator species for detecting the ecological effects of a changing climate in mountainous regions,” according to nps.gov, it has gained new attention in the research world. One study took place right here in Tahoe, documented in the Public Library of Science journal (PLOS One) in August 2017 by authors Joseph A.E. Stewart, David H. Wright, and Katherine A. Heckman. Looking at climate, weather-station data, and previously published data on the pika’s habitat, they found these sources to “implicate climate change as the cause of the Pluto triangle extirpation [extermination].”
What is the Pluto triangle? Think of the drive from Kings Beach, over Brockway summit (yes, this includes Mt. Pluto at the top of Northstar ski resort) to Truckee, Highway 89, Tahoe City, and back to Kings Beach — the high terrain that sits within that triangle. From radiocarbon dates (from old fecal matter), the study concludes that pikas were extirpated from the Pluto triangle sometime after 1958, with age ranges within the triangle spanning as late as 1991. The loss of pika in this local area is the “largest area of pika extinction yet reported for the modern era,” states the PLOS One journal.
But, pikas aren’t completely gone from areas near Tahoe. Looking at the map included in the journal article, there have been signs of pika found east and west of the Pluto triangle, such as Mt. Rose, Tamarack Peak, Rose Knob Peak, Marlette Peak, Ward Peak, Five Lakes, KT-22, Pole Creek, and Donner Pass. But how long will this cute little bunny critter survive? Joseph Stewart, one of the authors in the study, projects a 97 percent decline of suitable climate conditions in the Tahoe area by 2050. He has also hiked around the southeast mountains near the Sierra Buttes, saying: “Three years ago there were a lot more pikas. Each year I have to go farther up the talus slopes to find them.”
The explanation of the pika’s disappearance is simple: the pika thrives in cold weather with its thick coat of fur and high metabolic rate; it gets hot easily. When high elevation habitats become warm, it moves higher and higher. When it’s too hot, it can’t collect as much food (unable to tolerate warm weather), so it forages during the cooler times of day — morning and night. Exposed out in the open during these times, the pika becomes more susceptible to predators: weasels, hawks, owls, and coyotes.
Legislation-wise, President Obama chose not to put pikas on the endangered list, but California Department of Fish and Wildlife currently list pikas as a species of special concern. At the end of their last evaluation, they opted for continued monitoring as opposed to the listing, wrote researcher Joseph Stewart.
Stewart concludes that the pika as an indicator species reveals what’s possibly ahead for other species. Even now, Stewart says, the whitebark pine and the Belding’s ground squirrel are threatened. What other species are vulnerable to climate change? What other species will be gone?
In an article on this very subject, The Week states: “We’ve driven thousands of species to the edge of extinction through habitat loss, overhunting and overfishing, the introduction of invasive species into new ecosystems, toxic pollution, and climate change. In the past 40 years, the number of wild animals has plunged 50 percent, a 2014 study found.”
Depressing. So, is there any hope for the pika?
The one attribute in helping this species to survive is its place in the rabbit family; yes, pikas procreate like bunnies. Maybe there’s a chance, after all, for the little mouse-like creature to combat climate change.
Breed on, little pika, breed on.