The Science of Sustainability

Counting Climate-Challenged Pikas

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The American pika is a squeaky little animal that lives at high elevations in mountains in the West. It could one day have a huge influence on America’s battles over climate change. And a new program is enlisting students to help scientists learn more about the critters.

Meet the Pika

The American pika lives at high elevations in the American West. Photo: Doug Von Gausig/Naturesongs.com

In a campground near Lake Tahoe, a group of seventh and eighth graders from West Oakland Middle School are sitting around a campfire, getting to know ecologist Joseph Stewart. And he's introducing them to his work. Stewart works with the California Department of Fish and Game and is a grad student at the University of Nevada-Reno, where he studies pikas.

"This is a picture of a pika," Stewart says.  He pulls out a photo and the campers click on their flashlights to see it.

"Ooh, they're cute," says seventh-grader Anisa Moore.

Pikas are related to rabbits. They're about the size of hamsters, with no tails and round Mickey Mouse ears. They live in rock piles at high elevations, and are adapted to cold temperatures. When it gets too hot, they hide out under the rocks. So Stewart is trying to figure out if pikas don't do well in the heat, what will happen to them as the climate continues to warm.

"They've been petitioned for listing under the Endangered Species Act because of climate change," he explains to the students. "But when the Fish and Wildlife Service reviewed that petition, they pretty much said that we don't know enough about how pikas are doing. We need more data."

Two years ago, the Obama administration decided not to protect pikas as endangered. But California is still considering it. If the state does decide to add them to its endangered species list, pikas would become the first species here to be listed as threatened primarily because of climate change. If the state starts protecting animals because of climate change, things that affect the climate, like new fossil-fuel power plants or clearcut logging projects, could be slowed.

The students are here with Howard Nathel, who volunteers at their school and organized the project.  They'll survey likely pika habitat, to help figure out where pikas still live, and in what locations they once lived, but don't anymore.

In the Wilderness

Fredrikka Lake at the border of Desolation Wilderness. Photo: Molly Samuel

To get to pika habitat, the students have to hike. Lake Tahoe isn't high enough for the cold-loving creatures.

They're heading to Tamarack Lake, a bright blue lake surrounded by granite and pine trees in the Desolation Wilderness near South Lake Tahoe. At about 7800 feet in elevation, it's in prime pika territory.

The next morning, Anton Jackson and Joe Green get their first glimpse of a pika as it scurries across the rocks.

"You guys see that?" Stewart points it out to them.

"Yeah," Jackson says. "It's right there. It's really small. It's on that little rock."

"That's hecka small," says Green.

The group that's leading this trip is Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation (ASC), a Montana-based non-profit. Usually the organization puts outdoor athletes — hikers, climbers, kayakers — in touch with scientists who study plants and animals in hard-to-reach places, like Mt. Everest, the Australian Outback or the Amazon.

This is the first trip the group has organized for students.

"It's such a cool way for them to have fun, to grow a lot, and to be excited about what it is to be a scientist," says Gregg Treinish, the founder of ASC. "And to have that idea in their heads that, 'Hey I can be a scientist. Hey, I can do this.'"

The students learn to take down the data they need: where they are, what time it is, and whether or not they found pikas. Stewart explains the best way to figure out if a pika lives — or has lived — in the area is by looking for pika pellets, which look like brown-green peppercorns. De'Jon Banks quickly finds some.

(From left to right) Brendan Weiner, Howard Nathel, De'Jon Banks, Fredrick Lake, Joseph Stewart, Anton Jackson and Joe Green look for pikas. Photo: Molly Samuel/KQED

"Oh, this pika poop right here?" He asks.

"Let's see. Looks like it. Looks like you found some," Stewart says. "So I'll write down that we found some…"

"Old pika poop," Banks offers.

This data will go into iNaturalist, a website where citizen scientists can upload their observations for scientists to use. This is the first time anyone's surveyed the area around Tamarack Lake for pikas.

Treinish says, this project isn’t just good for science, it’s also good for the students, who are going beyond pre-set lab experiments, and learning to do actual field work.

"They're in 7th grade from West Oakland, and they're going to be part of science, they're part of our scientific understanding of the world. And that's a really cool thing," he says.

Pikas in the Past, Present and Future

Later in the day, Stewart takes me to one of the sites he's studied. As it starts to cool off around dusk, the pikas emerge from under the rocks and begin calling. Their chirps bounce off the granite boulders.

"I don't think there will be pikas here in 50 years," Stewart tells me. "Right now it seems like there's tons, but if you change the climate, if it's on average a couple degrees Celsius warmer here, it's not going to be climaticly suitable for pikas."

Pikas have been moving uphill since the last ice age, to keep up with the cooler temperatures they've evolved to live in. As part of his research, Stewart searches for spots that would be good pika habitat if they were higher and cooler. When he finds pika pellets in those locations, he can tell they once lived there.

As the climate continues to warm, their range will get even smaller. Stewart says anthropogenic climate change means, they may disappear from Northern California entirely.

Pika Policy

The more scientists know about their numbers, the better informed government leaders will be when deciding whether to classify them as endangered.

The California Department of Fish and Game is expected to recommend whether or not to list the pika as threatened later this year.

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Category: Biodiversity, Biology, Climate, Environment, News, Radio

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Molly Samuel

About the Author ()

Molly Samuel joined KQED as an intern in 2007, and since then has worked here as a reporter, producer, director and blogger. Before becoming KQED Science’s Multimedia Producer, she was a producer for Climate Watch. Molly has also reported for NPR, KALW and High Country News, and has produced audio stories for The Encyclopedia of Life and the Oakland Museum of California. She was a fellow with the Middlebury Fellowships in Environmental Journalism and a journalist-in-residence at the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center. Molly has a degree in Ancient Greek from Oberlin College and is a co-founder of the record label True Panther Sounds.