Imagine the scene at the top of one of Colorado’s 14,000 foot peaks on a sunny summer day.

The air is thin, often accompanied by a chilled breeze. It’s quiet, rather lonely, but in a good way. Any clouds in the sky seem just out of reach, as peaks of similar altitude and magnificence tend to stretch out in the distance on all sides. Small pockets of snow leftover from a recent cold day might linger between rocks scattered about as if a group of stones were congregating for a meeting at the summit.

There’s not much life, at least so it seems – a few wildflowers popping up here and there where small plots of dirt remain uncovered, fields of delicate grass in areas where the terrain permits, but that’s about it. It’s easy to feel alone.

Of course, that feeling immediately evaporates with a tiny blur of movement between the scree. And then the shadowy blur is seen again, and again.

Just as you start to wonder if the mind is playing tricks, the blur stops darting, but only briefly to catch its breath and emit a sharp squeak.

The true shape of the blur is revealed, and it’s furry… with disproportionately large, rounded ears.

What you’ve spotted is a tiny mountain-dwelling mammal that’s closely related to a rabbit – the pika.

It’s remarkably quick, it’s undeniably cute, and its future might be bleak.

A pika with a mouth full of forage. Photo Credit: moose henderson (iStock).

Though a common creature to sight approaching the top of Colorado’s many high-altitude peaks, the pika can make a home at altitudes that far exceed those found in Colorado – as high as 20,000 feet in various spots around the world.

While you’ll find these tiny creatures above treeline in Colorado, you won’t find them far below that – they’re extremely temperature sensitive, with even weather that’s slightly too warm capable of causing death among the members of this fragile species. The United States Fish & Wildlife Service puts that deadly temperature at 77.9 degrees Fahrenheit – what many humans would consider to be no more than a pleasant summer day. This tends to keep the pikas’ habitat above roughly 9,000 feet of elevation.

The pika’s time spent in this high-altitude habitat is often action-packed, as during the warm months of the year, a pika can make up to 14,000 foraging trips collecting as much as 61 pounds of vegetation for winter month consumption. One article in the Journal of Mammalogy estimates that this might mean the pika makes 100 trips per day to gather future food.

These furry creatures don’t stop at merely collecting the food either. They also cure it by carefully laying gathered vegetation across sunny rocks until it is dried out. Once the vegetation has reached optimal dryness, the pikas transfer the future food source to a vast collection they’ve been amassing beneath rocks scattered about, with their stash spot capable of spanning up to 100 square meters out-of-sight to passersby.

Pikas are no stranger to snowy habitats. Photo Credit: randimal (iStock).
Pikas are no stranger to snowy habitats. Photo Credit: randimal (iStock).

As you might expect, unideal temperatures aren’t the only thing that can kill a pika. A tiny mammal, they’ve got plenty of predators, including birds of prey, bobcats, foxes, and weasels. After all, they’re quite tiny – around 6 ounces – and they don’t have many options when it comes to protecting themselves. The odds of survival are stacked against the pika in many cases.

Thankfully, in the high alpine tundra of Colorado, the pika is able to avoid many of these predators.

Unfortunately, these predators aren’t to blame as the most notable factor that threatens the pika’s future existence – warming temperatures at their high-altitude habitat are considered to be a much bigger threat.

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 pikas in 910 locations stretching across four states. These sites were selected based on previous detection of pika populations at the sites at some point over the course of 100 years into the 1990s.

What they found was that some areas experienced major population loss between when they were first analyzed and during this 2014, 2015 study. They concluded, with additional data from previous studies, that sites in the Great Basin area of Nevada experienced 44% population loss. In northeast California, they found that pika were now absent at 11 of 29 observed sites.

After landing on results like this, the researchers started to ask why this was the case. They concluded that multiple factors were at play. Phenomena like drought can cause pika to temporarily leave an area. So can warming temperatures in a region.

They found that while the presence of habitable mountain scree seemed to be an indicator of pika presence in California, the presence of the pika was moreso dependent on precipitation and temperature in studied areas of the Great Basin and Utah.

This study also concluded that more research still needs to be done in order to “enhance the current understanding of pika distribution.”

According to the National Parks Service, climate change is predicted to result in rising summer temperatures, while also reducing the amount of snowpack at high-altitudes – two factors expected to have a negative impact on pika populations.

Upon mentioning warming temperatures in high-altitude habitats, it’s also important to mention that scientists looking into this occurrence are also pushing for more research to be done to further validate their findings. Conducting this research has plenty of complications – including the fact that there simply aren’t many meteorological stations at high altitudes 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 are operating at at least 3,000 meters of elevation worldwide as of 2015.

That’s around 10,000 feet. Keep in mind that thousands of peaks that reach this altitude exist in Colorado alone. And only 54 world-wide are collecting long term weather data.

With this lack of data addressed, let’s take a look at a few studies that have used the data that is available to indicate that things are getting warmer quickly in high-altitude terrain.

One study extensively covered by National Geographic showed that air temperatures in high-altitude mountains stretching from Afghanistan to Myanmar have increased by almost 2 degrees Fahrenheit since the start of the 20th century. This study also concludes that this trend is likely to continue, as well as that high-altitude regions may see climate change more intensely than low-altitude areas.

A piece published in World Watch Magazine, a publication that promotes sustainability, states that winter temperatures in the US West have risen 1.4 degrees Celsius over the past century, resulting in the northern Rockies seeing 15-30 percent less snowpack than in the 1950s. Note that this decreased snowpack hasn’t been seen everywhere that temperatures have risen in this mountain range, including Glacier National Park.

The changing climate in high-altitude areas can be a difficult subject to approach given the lack of long-term data, but for the sake of our furry friend, let’s assume that there’s a chance that the predictions coming from this research might be correct. What if high-altitude temperatures are getting warmer at a fast rate? What happens to the pika given its extreme sensitivity to temperature and its need for reliable snowpack totals to keep its home insulated through a chilling winter?

According to researchers with the National Park Service, warming temperatures could push pikas to higher and higher altitudes from which their species is unable to return. Couple this with the fact that every mountain eventually ends and that creates a scary situation.

One article in BioScience, a publication operated by Oxford Academic, compares this existence of the pika to that of a species that is isolated on an island amid a large ocean. According to this piece, the warmer temperatures that exist in the valleys between the peaks on which the pikas live make this space as impassible for the species as a vast stretch of water might for their island-dwelling counterpart. The inconvenient placement of these warmer valleys prevent the pika from moving between peaks in search of more favorable conditions thanks to the deadly temperatures they would encounter along the way.

Of course, if temperatures continue to rise, this space of favorable habitat that the pika is able to occupy continues to get smaller and smaller, as colder temperatures and snowpack essential for their winter insulation become more sparse, now located at an increasingly higher point up a mountain that probably won’t be getting much taller any time soon.

Much like a species on a flooding island, the pika is trapped, with warming temperatures instead of water closing in around them.

Signs of Hope

While the future may look bleak for the pika, some signs point to hope.

First, pikas 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-altitude escape further up the peak during warmer portions of the year.

Second, the pika might be more adaptable to warming temperatures than once thought. While all species don’t exhibit something called “behavioral flexibility,” pikas do. Basically, this means that the pika has been observed adjusting behaviors like foraging techniques and the regulation of core body temperature as a survival response. This suggests that some pockets of these pikas trapped on high-altitude genetic islands 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 species and on high-altitude temperature changes, it’s hard to conclude much with total certainty.

That being said, the next time you find yourself above treeline and hear a sharp squeak, remember the potential problem facing the pika. Remember that these tiny squeaks might not accompany your high-altitude adventures forever.

Is the pika trapped playing the role of the canary in a coal mine warning us of what might be to come for other species in a warmer world?

A recent report published by the United Nations seems to think that could be the case. In their report, they state humans are causing changes to habitats around the globe that could result in the extinction of more than half a million land species within decades.

As an animal lover, I hope that’s not the case.

I hope that I’m greeted with the same familiar squeak and blur of movement when I’m summiting fourteeners decades from now. I hope that the pika finds a way to survive, with or without our help.

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