Vail Daily column: Rising temperatures threaten pika populations
August 9, 2014
As the summer temperatures start to rise and the snow in the high country is only beginning to melt, pikas are already starting to prepare for the coming winter. If you're not sure what a pika is, it is the adorable little fuzzy alpine dweller that the Pokemon Pikachu was based on.
The first order of business for young pikas, fresh out of their mother's burrow, is to establish foraging territory. The fight for territory can lead to a series of short calls, chasing one another, and even face-offs in which two pikas stand up on their hind legs and "box" at each other. Once the battle for territory has been hashed out, all members of the pika colony begin the important business of gathering hay. Each of these hamster-sized lagomorphs (the mammalian order that also includes hares and rabbits) cuts and stores about a cubic yard of plant material each summer and fall. In order to avoid the plants rotting and forming mold, these clever little creatures lay their findings out on rocks to dry in the sun. Once dry, the hay is placed under overhanging rocks and serves to help pikas survive harsh alpine winters. Pikas do not hibernate but stay active all winter in tunnels under the rocks and snow. This means that they must work hard during the short summer if they want to have enough to eat during those unforgiving winter months when food is scarce.
Spot a pika
While hiking near or above tree line, a pika with a mouthful of grasses or wildflowers is one of the easiest wild animals to observe. While not always easy to locate due to the way they can throw their voices when calling, they will soon forget your presence if you stay still long enough. If you've never seen a pika, then you probably want to know what to look for. Pikas are small mammals with short limbs and rounded ears. They have no tail and can weigh between 4 and 12 ounces. If a pika senses a predator, such as a weasel or fox, then it will let out a loud "eeek" sound to signal others in the area of the approaching danger. One might think this would draw the predator to the sounding pika, but the way these creatures can throw their voices actually confuses the predator. This allows a warning for others in the area that danger is near, as well as throwing off the predators' sense of where dinner is.
For those pikas fast enough to escape predators and hardy enough to survive the long, cold winters, there is one looming danger they have no way of escaping: The rising temperatures. Pikas live high in the mountains, mostly above tree line. They have thick furry coats that keep them well protected in the cold and adapted to low temperatures. This means that when temperatures get too warm, there is nothing they can do. Most animals will seek refuge at a higher, cooler elevation. However, because pikas already live on the high mountain peaks, there is nowhere for them to retreat. When temperatures get too high, the pika have no means to cool themselves down. Their bodies will overheat and they will die.
The pika are just one species threatened by rising global temperatures. And while it may seem overwhelming, many scientists believe there is still time to limit the damage from rising temperatures by reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and maybe to save the pika. Living a green lifestyle makes us healthier, both as individuals and as a community, and might also keep more of these delightful lagomorphs visible on our hikes in the high country.
Kayla Kramer is a naturalist at Walking Mountains Science Center in Avon. She has a passion for yoga and enjoys everything the great outdoors has to offer.