Why the Mountain Pika Is an Adorable Proxy for the Effects of Climate Change

Pikas live in high mountain ecosystems that are cool and moist, but rising temperatures can lead them to overheat. (Photo: Jon LeVasseur, U.S. National Park Service [public domain]/Flickr)

Although you might think they look like a rounder, tailless rat or short-necked squirrel, mountain pikas aren't rodents at all. They're actually related to rabbits. They make a cute squeaking sound to communicate with one another and they move fast over the rocks, often with a bunch of grass or moss between their teeth.

They are as adorable as they sound.

Pikas live at higher elevations than their rabbit cousins, and they especially love areas with lot of rocky hidey-holes, like talus slopes. That's exactly where I saw and heard them this past summer when I was hiking at Mount Rainier National Park.

While pikas aren't yet an endangered species, they are sensitive to temperature changes, which means they are vulnerable to the effects of climate change. They have disappeared from some large swaths of land where they had historically been found, and scientists say it just got too hot for them there.

That cute little round body and thick fur is actually ideal for conserving heat, which has served the pika well. They comfortably survive harsh mountain winters sans hibernation. They also build "haypiles" during the warmer months, which are super-insulated dens with plenty of food, but they can get too hot if temperatures rise too high. In many places, scientists have found that pikas simply move up the mountain to colder spots — but that tactic can only take them so long, as the video below explains.

Pikas defy the odds

Biologist Chris Ray has been studying pikas in the same high-elevation Montana canyon since 1988, and is considered one of the world's top experts on them. This long-term monitoring and data-gathering is important for learning as much as possible about a species' habits and interaction with its ecosystem over time — it's valuable for that reason alone. But the work Ray does is increasingly important to understand how climate change is affecting these animals, too.

"When I see a little fluffy thing like a pika, a tiny little thing, and then I see some of the locations where it's managed to eek out a living, I'm just fascinated. I want to know, how do they do it? I want to get there. I want to understand, how does it happen?" Ray told Inside Climate News. Ray now has a dataset on pikas that spans over 30 years.

At first there seems to be some mixed information in the data — sometimes pikas are found in places that are hotter than where they'd be expected to be found. But when you look closer, there are mitigating factors. Of course all ecosystems have different variables: "In some areas, including Idaho's Craters of the Moon National Monument, pikas survive stifling heat thanks to underground ice deposits. In the Columbia River Gorge, they survive near sea level thanks to the thick overstory and moss that keep temperatures tolerable through the summer months," according to the Inside Climate News article.

American Pika
American pikas require very specific temperatures to thrive. (Photo: Randimal/Shutterstock)

And while pikas don't like hot summers, very cold temperatures without insulating snow can also doom them, leaving them too exposed. In the west, snowpack has declined about 20% in the last 100 years, as more precipitation falls as rain or doesn't fall at all.

So pikas might not be reacting simply to warmer temperatures, or only to precipitation, but instead to complex combinations of snowpack and moisture. And they'll likely do better in places where they have some kind of refuge from the heat even if overall temperatures are higher than they would otherwise enjoy. These are complicated questions, and while pikas will likely survive the next few decades in niches and areas that are less affected by climate change, in other places, they will disappear, as they already have in California and Utah.