Meet the 'mouse-bunny' that could vanish from the US

The pika’s pickle: The fur ball known as an American pika is not coping well with climate change.

Looking a bit like a mighty-eared mouse, the American pika (Ochotona princeps) is a wee member of the rabbit family that lives in the mountains of the western United States and southwestern Canada. The pika’s other names – rock rabbit, piping hare, hay-maker, mouse-hare, whistling hare, and cony – all attest to the undeniable Beatrix-Potter charm of this alpine mammal.

But sadly, we may be losing the American pika as it is disappearing from much of its mountain habitat in the U.S. While researchers have been noting the pika’s slow decline, a new study now confirms the decline and suggests that rising temperatures are a driving factor.

PikaU.S. Geological Survey/CC BY 2.0

Author of the study, Erik A. Beever, a research ecologist with the United States Geological Survey, and a team of 14 researchers surveyed more than 900 locations across three Western regions where pikas have lived – northern California, the Great Basin and southern Utah. What they discovered is startling, reports InsideClimate News:

In California, pikas had disappeared from 38 percent of the sites. In the Great Basin, which lies between the Rockies and the Sierra Nevada mountains, 44 percent of locations were pika-free. They were unable to find a single one in Zion National Park, in southern Utah, where the animals had been recorded as recently as 2011.

Part of the problem is that what makes the pika so cute is also leading to its undoing. Even though they rub rocks with their cheeks, and sing and whistle and squeak, and according to the IUCN Red List, “spend much of the day sitting still, observing their surroundings” – their cutest attribute may be their irresistible puff of fur. Even the soles of their feet are covered in fur, all except the tips of their toes.

"It has this characteristic of essentially being a big fur ball, which is a really great strategy if you live on the top of a snowy cold mountain and want to stay active in those temperatures," says Mark C. Urban from the University of Connecticut, comparing the pika’s dilemma to wearing a fur coat on a warm summer day. "Humans can take off that fur coat, but the American pika can't."

Pika© Tony LePrieur/flickr

Living high in the cool mountains makes the pika isolated, as the valleys below are too warm for them to successfully migrate to new territory. As The New York Times reports, "the thick coats that help the pika survive winter can roast them if temperatures rise above 77F degrees for as little as six hours."

As things warms up, the pikas can really only move higher up the mountain. Scientists have long believed that creatures in isolated ecosystems would be the first to go as the climate changes, Urban says. The new research strengthens the theory, he adds.

PikaAlan D. Wilson/CC BY 2.0

The study is important not only because it serves as an indication of things to come for other isolated species, but may help in the plight of the pika itself.

In 2010, the federal administration rejected a bid to add the American pika to the endangered species list, concluding that the American pika could handle a wider range of temperatures and precipitation than previously thought. The sweet little American pika is up for nomination again, hopefully the new data will have an impact on the decision.

And not only for the pika’s sake.

The researchers say that the loss of these rock bunnies could have a profound impact on their mountain habitats. Despite their diminutive size, they play a starring role in the ecosystem by spreading seeds and redistributing nutrients. And as Beever notes, the data indicate a near-certain decline in key areas.

"At our sites in the Great Basin, we're really not seeing any of those patches they're lost from being recolonized," he said. "It's kind of a one-way trip."

Via InsideClimate News

Tags: Animals | Endangered Species | Global Climate Change

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