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The American Pika: From Icon of Climate Vulnerability to Model of Resilience

Photo of The American pika, a small non-hibernating mammal related to rabbits that lives in high mountains of western North America. Dr. Andrew Smith, Arizona State University.The American pika, a small non-hibernating mammal related to rabbits that lives in high mountains of western North America. Dr. Andrew Smith, Arizona State University.Snapshot : Despite their small size, mountain dwelling American pikas have gained a big reputation for their supposed vulnerability to climate change and likelihood of extinction as a result of warming temperatures. But pikas have a suite of options including cool micro-climates and behavioral adaptations that indicate they have much greater resilience than is widely believed. Like humans living in hot environments, pikas take advantage of the “air conditioned” interiors of the rocky landforms they inhabit and likewise modify their activity to the most favorable times of day.

Principal Investigators(s) :
Millar, Constance I. 
Research Location : Mountain ranges of the western Great Basin, U.S.
Research Station : Pacific Southwest Research Station (PSW)
Year : 2016
Highlight ID : 941

Summary

Anticipating the response of small mammals to climate change requires knowledge of conditions in their habitat during times of the day and year when individuals use them. Forest Service scientists measured diurnal and seasonal temperatures of seven habitat components for mountain dwelling American pikas (Ochotona princeps) for five years at 37 sites within seven mountain ranges in the Great Basin of the U.S. The researchers found that the interiors of pikas' rocky talus habitats remained cooler than mean external air temperature in summer and were buffered in daily temperature relative to outside environments. During winter, talus interiors were warmer than external air temperatures, providing shelter from extreme cold. These conditions, confirmed by our prior studies that documented decoupled micro-climates of taluses, afford diurnal and seasonal opportunities for pikas to adapt behaviorally to unfavorable regional temperatures and suggest that animals can accommodate a wider range of future climates than has been assumed. Climate assessments that model only surface air temperatures and do not include information on individual thermal components of mammalian habitat may lead to errant conclusions about the vulnerability of species under changing climates. Talus appears to be an excellent climate refugia for American pikas into the warming future.

Forest Service Partners

External Partners

  • Diane Delany, Pacific Southwest Research Station
  • Robert Westfall, Pacific Southwest Research Station