American Pika and Climate Change

Julia, a new monthly correspondent and Bucktails and Bass alumni, writes this week’s post about how climate change affects the American pika.  She explains the different dynamics that come in to play when the weather patterns pika rely on in their habitat change in drastic ways – and how they may not survive a permanent change in those patterns.  

Julia B.

The effects humans have on the environment are undeniably profound and widespread.  Ocean acidification, greenhouse gas, pollution, global warming, and climate change all require immediate concern and attention, but extinction rate is, to me, perhaps the most alarming.  The current rate of extinction is estimated to be between 0.01% and 0.1% of total species per year, according to the World Wildlife Foundation, which at first seems fairly minor.  However, considering the number of species on Earth (about 100,000,000), this rate means that at least 10,000 species go extinct every year — 1,000 to 10,000 times the expected natural extinction rate!  Consider the specific case of pikas, a species of rodents from the American West.

Pikas are adorable, tiny, rodent-like animals.  Imagine a wild hamster mixed with a rabbit.  They have short bodies, big ears, and no visible tail.  Pikas eat grasses and wildflowers that grow at extremely high altitudes.  Dens between rocks above the treeline serve as their yearlong homes.  Their loud squeaks give away their location, but they are very difficult to see because of the camouflage provided by their rock-colored fur.  The species is suffering from both loss of habitat and from global warming.

The American Pika may become the first species to become extinct because of the effects of global warming.  Pikas live at high altitudes in the Rocky Mountains and surrounding ranges where temperatures remain cool all year, and they depend on certain plants that grow only in those conditions.  In addition, higher temperatures can cause the tiny, fur-covered animals to overheat.  Many other species who require specific temperatures can simply move to a slightly higher altitude to keep cool, but pikas already live at the tops of mountains and have nowhere to flee the heat.  Global warming also affects how much work a pika can do in a day to prepare for winter.  When temperatures rise, they spend more time in their cool rocky homes during the heat of the day.  Heat cuts into time spent gathering winter food and nest supplies.

Climate change also dramatically affects weather.  Changing snowfall patterns could mean that the pika’s dens will be exposed during the coldest weeks of winter rather than being insulated with snow, so pikas that manage to avoid overheating in the summer might freeze to death in the winter.

Extinction of pikas, while horribly devastating, is worsened by the impact that the loss of the pika would have on the rest of the ecosystem.  Eagles, hawks, coyotes, bobcats, foxes, and weasels rely on the pika as prey and will suffer the consequences of global warming as well, should American Pikas go extinct.