How Will Climate Change Affect the Pika?

Feedloader (Clickability)

Could this cute little pika disappear, a victim of climate change? The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says no; the agency declined to place the mammal on the Endangered Species List last Friday.

The American pika (Ochotona princeps) is a cousin of the rabbit, though smaller and lacking the bunny's floppy ears. They eat grasses and herbs and live in the alpine regions of the western United States and Canada. Pikas prefer cool, moist conditions, but climate change is disrupting their mountaintop homes. Migrating northward, isn't an option because they'd have to pass through valleys that are too warm for the cute little furry creatures. And moving up the side of a mountain may sound like a solution, but it won't work for all the pikas: What happens when the mountain isn't high enough or other bits of the pika's habitat, such as food or predators, change?

Environmentalists have worried about the pika for years, and there is plenty of evidence that the animal is threatened by climate change. A 2003 study, for example, found that the animal had disappeared from seven of 25 study sites since the 1990s. The Center for Biological Diversity then petitioned Fish and Wildlife to place the pika on the Endangered Species List in 2007.

After reviewing the available data, however, Fish and Wildlife has declined to list the pika. Fish and Wildlife scientists acknowledge that low-elevation populations of pikas are likely to disappear due to rising summer temperatures over the coming decades. But they do not think the species is at risk of extinction because some pika populations will be able to survive climate change. Some live at elevations that already place the pika at the lower end of its preferred temperature range. Others, the scientists say, may be able to move to better conditions at higher elevations as temperatures warm and some pikas at in warmer places may be able to take refuge from higher temperatures by hiding in the rocks during the day.

(Hat tip: KSJ Tracker)

Get the latest Science stories in your inbox.