In another lifetime or a parallel universe, I would have been a pika researcher. Perhaps one of my favorite parts of hiking in the mountains is encountering these critters; their tell-tale “MEEEeeepp!!!” instantly puts a smile on my face. With adorable features and a temperamental constitution, pika are found living in the scree of alpine slopes in Europe, Asia, and North America. If you are unfamiliar, or unconvinced of their majesty, I urge you to check out this video:
Seriously though, I love these little guys. I get very wistful when the snow-level drops come autumn and I know they will soon retreat to their haypiles and burrowed out tunnels beneath the snow. Brandon can attest to the many extended “breaks” we’ve had to take on the side of the trail when I think we might get a chance at a pika sighting.
Which is why news of a sighting of the rare Ili Pika of China just about made my week--if not my month! Apparently, this member of the pika family has not had a confirmed sighting since 1990. Discoverer and number one advocate Li Weidong retired early to devote his time to studying the Ili Pika. This particular pika was first discovered in 1983, and researchers believe that populations have dropped by 70% since it’s discovery (CNN). These pictures are exciting news, but also troubling.
Pika are a climate change indicator species. Research groups have cropped up in California, Oregon, and Colorado, monitoring pika activity--and its decline. Pika cannot survive drastic hot or cold temperatures, which means a warming climate would force them to higher and higher elevations--until they have no ground higher to seek out. Plus, they do not hibernate in the winter, instead living off of the caches of vegetation they spent the summer months collecting. At higher elevation, the amount of vegetation available drops, and fewer pika will be able to share the available resources.
But there is some good news. Researchers in Utah have discovered that pika there have adapted to a lichen and moss diet. While less nutritious in comparison to their preferred diet of leafy flowers and grasses, it does mean that pika may be more adaptable than given credit for. And while I wouldn’t say these little guys are friendly, they are less bothered by the presence of humans and make for an ideal species for citizen science research. Organizations like Front Range Pika Project, Cascades Pika Watch, and PikaNET all educate and train hikers in helping to collect data on pika habitat areas and population. Next time you’re out navigating scree or talus fields, be listening for a familiar, “MEEEEeeepp!”