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
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 hes 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, theyre cute, says seventh-grader Anisa Moore.
Pikas are related to rabbits. Theyre 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 dont do well in the heat, what will happen to them as the climate continues to warm.
Theyve 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 dont 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. Theyll survey likely pika habitat, to help figure out where pikas still live, and in what locations they once lived, but dont anymore.
In the Wilderness
To get to pika habitat, the students have to hike. Lake Tahoe isnt high enough for the cold-loving creatures.
Theyre 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, its 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. Its right there. Its really small. Its on that little rock.
Thats hecka small, says Green.
The group thats 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.
Its 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. DeJon Banks quickly finds some.
Oh, this pika poop right here? He asks.
Lets see. Looks like it. Looks like you found some, Stewart says. So Ill 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 anyones 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.
Theyre in 7th grade from West Oakland, and theyre going to be part of science, theyre part of our scientific understanding of the world. And thats 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 hes 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 dont think there will be pikas here in 50 years, Stewart tells me. Right now it seems like theres tons, but if you change the climate, if its on average a couple degrees Celsius warmer here, its 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 theyve 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.
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.