Though the pika is a common animal to spot on Colorado's highest peaks, the species isn't found far below treeline for a good reason. Pika are extremely temperature sensitive, with even the slightest uptick in heat capable of causing death. Unfortunately, as peaks around the world seem to be getting warmer on average, it could spell disaster for this beloved alpine creature.
According to a study conducted by the United States Geological Survey, rising temperatures are leading to extirpations, or local extinctions, of the pika in some areas of the American West.
During this study, scientists looked for evidence of pika in 910 locations historically known to be home to the species across four states. Researchers found that many areas experienced major pika population loss since they had first been observed, concluding that sites in the Great Basin area of Nevada experienced a 44 percent population loss and in northeast California, pika were now absent at 38 percent of observed sites. Researchers attributed these massive losses to multiple factors, including periodic drought and increasing temperatures.
The United States Fish & Wildlife Service puts the deadly temperature for the pika at 77.9 degrees Fahrenheit, which tends to keep the habitat of the species located above 9,000 feet of elevation. Multiple studies have shown that temperatures in high-elevation areas seem to be rising in many parts of the world, including one that indicates average mountain temperatures are rising .54 degrees per decade. If temperatures rise, the pika will be living in a warming habitat that can turn deadly given the animal's temperature sensitivity. As an added threat, warming temperatures can also reduce snowpack, something the pika relies on for insulation and shelter.
According to researchers with the National Park Service, warming temperatures will likely push pika to higher elevations as they seek relief. Couple this with the fact that every mountain eventually tops out and that creates a scary situation. As this trend continues, the habitat for the pika will keep moving to an increasingly higher point on a mountain that won’t be getting much taller any time soon. If temperatures continue to rise, the available habitat for the pika will likely grow more sparse due to restrictive conditions necessary for their survival.
Much like a species on a flooding island, the pika is trapped as the threat of death approaches on all sides – in the form of warming temperatures instead of rising water.
While the future may look bleak for the pika, some signs point to hope.
First, pika in Colorado have not shown the same losses that have been observed in other populations. This may be due to Colorado having some of the highest peaks in the country, meaning there’s still the option of an even higher high-elevation escape compared to many other regions.
Second, pika might be more adaptable to warming temperatures than once thought. While all species don’t exhibit something called “behavioral flexibility,” pika do. This means that the pika may be able to adjust behaviors like foraging techniques and the regulation of core body temperature as a survival response, suggesting that some pockets of pika may be able to adapt and survive.
The verdict still seems to be out on the future of the pika and until there’s more data available on the adaptability of the species and on high-elevation temperature changes, it’s hard to conclude much with total certainty.
Could the pika be trapped playing the role of a canary in a coal mine, foreshadowing what might become of other species in a warmer world? Only time will tell.
Editor's Note: Data is very limited in regard to temperatures rising at higher elevations and that must be mentioned. Conducting research on this topic has plenty of complications – including the fact that there simply aren’t many meteorological stations at high elevations and when there are, there’s a good chance they lack much significant long-term data. According to work done by the Mountain Research Initiative Elevation-Dependent Warming Working Group, only 54 of 7,297 long-term meteorological stations with 20 years of data or more were operating at at least 3,000 meters of elevation worldwide as of 2015 – quite limited considering that 1,000s of peaks reach this height in Colorado alone.