Freezing to death: Volunteers and researchers study one species’ response to a warming climate

Ryan Ernstes/Special to Colorado Community Media
Posted 7/13/22

On a nice July day, you might find Jennifer Zedalis up in the Alpine, with her 16-year-old daughter Sophie. Zedalis is lucky because she has a teenager who likes to wake up early — a necessity …

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Freezing to death: Volunteers and researchers study one species’ response to a warming climate

Posted
On a nice July day, you might find Jennifer Zedalis up in the Alpine, with her 16-year-old daughter Sophie. Zedalis is lucky because she has a teenager who likes to wake up early — a necessity when you’re hiking above tree line in the Colorado summers prone to thunder and lightning.
 
But the two aren’t storm searching or taking photographs or even out for a hike. Instead, they’re volunteers on a mission, looking for pika on behalf of a community science initiative studying the small mammal species. 
 
Zedalis and her daughter are volunteers with the Colorado Pika Project, an initiative founded in 2010 in response to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declining to list the American pika as an endangered species. The project is just one entity helping to research this tiny, temperature-sensitive Alpine mammal and trying to understand the species’ outlook in a rapidly changing climate. 
 
For creature lovers, pikas may hold value on the basis of their “unrelentingly cute” looks alone. But on a more consequential note, researchers say pikas act as an indicator species and hold clues to the health of our alpine ecosystems and even the water resources we depend on.
 
The bad news? Pika are disappearing from parts of the western U.S. landscape. Temperature changes due to climate change likely play a major role but perhaps not in the way you might think. 
 
Volunteering in the Alpine
 
For those unfamiliar, American pikas are small, territorial, herbivorous mammals that most often live in the high Alpine on the rocky, mountainous steppes above tree line. The species finds its range throughout many western U.S. states as well as parts of British Columbia and Alberta.
 
These tiny creatures are most closely related to rabbits and hares and are covered head to toe in the same rich, insulating fur. Unlike their cousins, they have small, rounded ears and weigh in around just 4.5 to 7.1 ounces — somewhere between one-quarter and less than half of a pound. If you’ve ever hiked to high elevation and heard a high-pitched squeak, it’s likely you encroached into the territory of one of these feisty mammals, ready to sound the alarm of an intruder. 
 
Back when the Colorado Pika Project first began, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service claimed there was insufficient evidence regarding how climate change would affect the species. So the Denver Zoo and the nonprofit Rocky Mountain Wild teamed up to start the project, which now sends some 150 volunteers out in the field each year to collect data about these miniscule mammals.
 
With the help of volunteers like the Zedalis duo, the Colorado Pika Project conducts surveys at nearly 100 locations each summer, primarily in Rocky Mountain National Park and the White River National Forest. A typical survey takes around an hour, during which volunteers use both auditory and visual clues to figure out whether pikas are inhabiting an area. 
 
Zedalis, who has been volunteering with the project since 2019, recalls a particularly memorable surveying experience back in the summer of 2020. Outside of Eagle, she and her daughter hiked to two survey locations on twin peaks referred to as New York High and New York Low, names referencing the elevation.
 
“It’s absolutely beautiful up there — Alpine scenery with fantastic views,” Zedalis said.
 
On New York High, the pair didn't see much. But on New York Low, Zedalis estimates they saw 15 pikas. 
 
Even when pikas aren’t spotted, surveyors can use clues to understand if pikas used to inhabit the area. And there’s one clue in particular that really sticks around: scat.
 
In extreme cases, “there is scat that has been found that’s over 100 years old,” said Alex Wells, co-director of the Colorado Pika Project. “But generally volunteers might find scat that is a decade or two old.”
 
Volunteers with the project tend to take part for one of two reasons.
 
“The entire group really does like hiking, and some people just enjoy being able to hike with a purpose,” Wells said. “Other folks are really explicitly concerned about climate change,” and working with us “is kind of a way to feel like you’re doing something.” 
 
Why are the pikas disappearing?
 
Depending on the survey location, the Colorado Pika Project now holds between three to 10 years worth of data on pikas but project leaders aren't yet ready to draw conclusions about the results of their findings. However, veteran scientific researchers outside of the project can lend insight into how pikas are faring in today’s climate. One such researcher is Dr. Chris Ray, a population biologist with the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research at the University of Colorado Boulder. 
 
Ray has been researching pikas for over 30 years. One of her primary goals is to better understand the pika's response to a changing climate. To do so, Ray spends several weeks each summer in the Alpine, trapping pikas, administering anesthesia and taking measurements before releasing the individuals back into their territories. She and her students used to capture around 48 pikas each summer, but in recent years have averaged closer to 24 to 36. She has seen the pikas disappearing firsthand.
 
To theorize why, it's important to have some base knowledge about the species. Foremost, pikas require a cool habitat. Because of their thick fur, they prefer to live in microclimates that maintain a temperature near freezing for most of the year. They lack any kind of typical cooling mechanism, like panting or heat radiation through the ears, and can die if exposed to heat for even a couple of hours. 
 
Those who know a little about pikas might be inclined to guess that as the climate warms, the temperatures are rising too high, killing off populations at lower elevations and shrinking their viable habitat to only the very tops of mountains. But Ray’s research indicates the truth is a little more complicated. 
 
In fact, pikas don’t always live at high elevation. The American pika also can be found in the lava fields of New Mexico and at sea level in the Columbia River Gorge. Outside of Colorado, pikas also live in the mountains of the Great Basin, southern Utah and northeastern California. What all pika habitats have in common, however, is access to subsurface microclimates. That is, pikas can live well below the surface, underneath piles of broken rock or in subsurface lava tubes.
 
What’s significant about these habitats is they help pikas maintain viable temperatures year-round. Even in the summer, Ray said its likely pikas can get deep enough below the surface to reach temperatures near freezing.
 
The rock piles act as a kind of chimney, letting hot air rise out the top and pooling cool air in the depths below. In colder climates, these same talus piles keep pikas warm in the winter. Where snow blankets the talus, it insulates the pikas from winter air temperatures that can fall far below freezing, and keeps the talus at a steady temperature near zero degrees. 
 
But as with much of the environment, climate change may be throwing pika habitat for a loop. In the Great Basin, California and Utah, snowpack is steadily declining, and some pikas may be losing their insulating snow blanket. Without sufficient snow, pikas can die of the cold.  
 
So in these regions, Ray said it’s likely the cold winter temperatures explain pika disappearances a little better than the warm summer temperatures.
 
“The irony is that pikas may be freezing to death due to global warming,” she said. 
 
However, in regions like Colorado, where the annual snowpack is remaining more stable — or in landscapes without cold winters — summer temperatures could explain more of the story. Here, Ray has witnessed a decline in juvenile recruitment, which means fewer juveniles are born each year, or fewer are surviving to adulthood. One theory is that as young pikas leave their mothers to find their own territory, they could be perishing in the heat as they are forced to travel through a hotter and hotter landscape. 
 
Once pikas disappear from a region, it’s tough for them to come back. As non-migratory animals that may live their entire lives in the same 12-meter radius, they can’t simply cross a valley and repopulate a once inhabited mountain range.
 
“We’ve seen the loss of whole populations” in the Great Basin, Ray said. “Once they’re empty, we haven't seen them be recolonized.” 
 
Beyond the pika — why it matters
 
Most ecologists would likely argue that studying pikas is important in its own right — that the balance of an entire ecosystem can be thrown off with the disappearance of just a single species. But even beyond this, pikas have important implications for the wider climate and society. 
 
First and foremost, Ray and Wells advocate that pikas can act as an indicator species for the health of our western water resources. After all, we rely on the same winter snowpack as pikas for drinking, living, and recreating. In late summer, the same permafrost that lies under stacks of talus melts and replenishes our reservoirs. 
 
With the current trajectory of our planet’s warming, it’s not so hard to imagine a world where this isn’t the case.
 
“Once we have no permafrost left, we won’t have any of that anymore,” Ray said. “It’s a catastrophe for us.” 
 
In a similar vein, Wells calls pikas “a canary in the coal mines,” warning of present and future ecological damage, foreboding the effects that could have on our lifestyles, recreation and economy.
But he speculates that for some, pikas hold a more emotional significance too. Himself a Colorado native, Wells grew up hearing the squeak of the pikas in the mountains.
 
“For a lot of folks, pikas are really tied to the image of Colorado,” he said. “I think if pikas disappeared, that’s a little part of Colorado’s soul that is lost.”
 
With the environmental, economic and emotional significance of this species’ survival in mind, Wells turns toward next steps for the Colorado Pika Project. They hope to start working with the National Park Service and U.S. Forest Service to turn the data they’re collecting into management action. 
 
While he acknowledges that research is valuable, Wells now seems to be seeking a more tangible impact — one that is action oriented.
 
With a sense of duty and gravity, he said, “We’re really trying to figure out how to take action to help protect pikas, instead of just being the ones who get to watch them die.”
Pica, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Serve, Colorado wildlife, Colorado Pika Project

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