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Know the West

The cute calamity


First, the cuteness, because I know everyone spends at least some portion of their day watching Youtube videos of cute animals doing droolingly hypnotic cute things (cat riding a Roomba, anyone? Or how about a slow loris with a very tiny umbrella?)

See? This is a pika -- a diminutive rabbit-relative which makes its home in the nooks and crannies of talus fields. Overwhelming cuteness!

Courtesy Flickr user Blake Matheson.

And this pika is stocking its "hay pile" -- a collection of wildflowers and other plants which provide the animal with food and insulation to help it get through a long alpine winter beneath the snow. The cuteness overwhelms so much that it's impossible to remain seated. Agh! The cuteness has knocked me to the floor.

Courtesy Flickr user Tundra Ice

Now the cuteness rays are direct! Shield your eyes!

Courtesy Flickr user Blue~Canoe

So, I really do have a purpose here beyond effusing over pikas' sheer adorableness. I'm just steeling us all against the following bad news (or maybe trying to drive home just how much climate change really $*#!s).

Back in 2005, High Country News contributing editor Michelle Nijhuis checked in with wildlife biologist Erik Beever, who has been tracking Great Basin pika populations and checking them against historical surveys. As Nijhuis wrote at the time, Beever's findings in the early 1990s weren't especially cheerful: six of 25 recorded Great Basin pika populations had blinked out; all were at lower elevations in the northern part of the basin. Between 2003 and 2005, he found that two more populations had vanished. Meanwhile, the lower edges of the remaining populations were retreating rapidly uphill (an average of 130 meters since the 1990s).

Pikas don't tolerate heat well. And when snowpack is thin or melts early, they may not be as well-insulated from montane winters' biting late-season temperatures. As such, climate change is a likely contributor to the observed decline, though other factors may also play a role. (Check out Nijhuis's and Madeleine Nash's related HCN coverage on the climatically-driven movements of species here and here)

The journal Global Change Biology will soon print Beever and colleagues' latest analyses of 110 years of contemporary and historic Great Basin pika data. The results look like more of the same, only worse. As of 2008, 10 of the recorded populations were gone; four of those have disappeared since 1999, this time in the southern end of the Basin. That last, according to the paper, translates to a five-fold increase in the extinction rate compared to the 20th century. But evidence of food caches at four of the remaining six sites suggests pikas disappeared from those places at the latter end of the century as well. In other words, almost all of the local extinctions may have happened relatively recently. Meanwhile, the average rate that the lower elevation boundary of pika range is moving uphill increased to 145 meters per decade. And the places that have lost their pikas, Beever et al. report, have on average been warmer in the summer, more frequently subject to extreme cold in the winter, and received less precipitation in general than the spots where pikas are still bounding between rocks.

In light of this, it's hard not to feel glum about the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's decision last year not to protect the pika under the Endangered Species Act. But there's a bright side as well, which Molly Samuel pointed out  last year in her HCN piece, "Pika Politics": Populations in many other places are relatively stable, and some pikas in marginal habitats have developed behavioral adaptations to protect them from the heat. In the gold mine dumps of California's Bodie Hills, for example, pikas only move around in the cool hours of morning and evening, rather than during the day like other pikas.

In any case, another picture of a pika should ease the pain:

Courtesy Flickr user Photo Phiend

Sarah Gilman is associate editor at High Country News