Short, flighty and weighing about as much as a deck of cards, the American pika is arguably one of nature's most unassuming species. Those who are fortunate enough to catch a glimpse of this furry herbivore tend to be more inclined to compare it to a mouse than to the more famous long-eared members of the rabbit family, to which it truly belongs -- a mistake that even creditable sources have a tendency to make from time to time. Under these circumstances, it's easy to see why the idea of comparing pikas to a massive, top-of-the-food-chain species like the polar bear seems laughable ... at least at first.
Yet comparisons between these small rabbit relatives and the charismatic white carnivores of the north are on the rise -- and for good reason. As residents of some of the coldest regions on Earth, pikas are proving just as vulnerable as polar bears to the increasing temperatures brought about by climate change. Unlike the polar bear, however, warming will leave pikas with absolutely no place left to go.
Originally from Asia, pikas are denizens of the alpine, a windswept, high-elevation environment that is covered in snow nine months out of the year. While most creatures avoid this harsh terrain at all costs, the pikas' preference for elevated cold-weather habitats has persisted for 15 million years. Today, eastern pikas call the bitter plains of the world's highest region home, while the American pika (one of two North American species) prefers to make its habitat in the uppermost regions of mountainous western states -- including Colorado.
Pikas are well-adapted to living in such brutal environments. The protection afforded by large rock piles (known as talus) that make up pika habitat enables the creatures to find shelter from bitter alpine winds. As pikas are too small to build up the fat reserves necessary for hibernation, these rock piles also double as storage grounds for the large collections of dried grasses and flowers they establish during the brief summer months to sustain them through the winter. To combat temperatures that can drop well below zero, pikas are also equipped with an extremely thick layer of fur. Ironically, the arrival of annual snows may provide a third means of protection against the cold: the precipitation acts as an additional layer of insulation for the pikas, keeping them snug in their talus piles throughout the winter. Such integral attunement to an environment where competition and predators tend to be few and far-between has preserved the species for millennia on end.
Unfortunately, the very adaptations that American pikas have relied on for survival may soon pave the way for their extinction. The pikas' insular coats can prove fatal to the creatures in even mild weather: sustained temperatures as low as 78 degrees Fahrenheit have been known to cause death to pikas within the space of a couple of hours. Although these temperatures have historically been absent from the pikas' alpine environments, global warming is changing the picture. The impacts of climate change are growing increasingly evident in the world's coldest regions, and the alpine terrain of Colorado and the western U.S. is hardly exempt. Many regions in Colorado have already seen annual temperature increases of two degrees Fahrenheit, and higher education research estimates predict an additional 5-10 degrees spike by the end of the century -- putting pikas living at even the highest mountain peaks in the state at severe risk. The warming trend has already begun to claim lives elsewhere: recent research has shown that pikas have disappeared from over one-third of their original habitat in two western states as a result of rising temperatures, and monitoring is feverishly underway throughout the species' known ranges in anticipation of population declines.
A fight for survival
The 2008 Endangered Species Act revision establishing polar bears as a species directly threatened by climate change paved the way for other animals to receive similar protection under the federal government, and numerous legislative battles have since been waged over the issue by wildlife conservationists across the country. At the top of most lists of species in critical need of such protection is the American pika, which is being pushed to be the first mammal listed as “endangered” due to warming. The popularity pays off: even though continued battles against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (the division that manages the ESA) have made only slow headway on behalf of this species, support for the listing remains strong. Prominent environmental scientists at a recent Colorado conference on environmental law singled out the pika as a potential "poster child" for strengthening environmental regulations, while prominent regional publications such as The Denver Post have highlighted the native creature's dire status and encouraged this increased level of protection.
Meanwhile, researchers throughout the state are continuing to take matters into their own hands. While conducting a 2006 study on pikas in the Niwot Ridge region (20 miles west of Boulder), Colorado College mammalogist Barry Rosenbaum discussed his belief that the creatures will be the primary indicator species for the impacts of warming with National Wildlife Magazine, emphasizing that "All other mammal species in continental North America have greater heat tolerances." Perhaps the strongest support for this yet has come from pika researcher Chris Ray, a Boulder-based scientist who has been intensively studying the correlation between declining American pika populations and climate change for years. Ray's findings -- published by the University of Colorado in 2006 – were submitted to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service earlier this year, which is expected to announce its own research results concerning the situation in 2010. Although the government may be debating climate change's impact on the species, Ray is a firm believer that pikas are in danger -- and she has her research to support her. "When you see a systematic decline in pikas, that tells you dramatic changes are taking place in the alpine," she told National Wildlife. Ray also believes it is "reasonable" to expect that pikas could be the first mammal in the continental U.S. to disappear due to climate change. "If an isolated population blinks out today" due to current warming trends, she contends, "it's nearly impossible for that habitat to be recolonized" (Sources: National Wildlife 2006, Yellowscene 2009).
Declines in pika populations due to climate change have already had a massive impact throughout Colorado and the American west. Researchers have devoted years to studying the matter, providing foundations for the environmental groups that have racked up untold hours and fees fighting to protect the species. The natural impact of current population extirpations, meanwhile, has not even been quantified. Yet if these efforts and the situation at large are given the recognition they need, the rabbit's smallest relative may be able to open the door for positive environmental regulations of enormous proportions, redefining what constitutes necessary protection for an endangered species and bringing awareness of the effects of climate change in the lower 48 to a very immediate level. In doing so, the American pika will transcend its unassuming stature in an unprecedented way -- making its comparison with nature's most charismatic species well-deserved, indeed.
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