American Pika is Resilient in Face of Climate Change

The tiny 'rock rabbit' may not be as threatened as previously thought.

American pika
The American pika is a member of the rabbit family. milehightraveler / Getty Images

The American pika is ridiculously cute. The tiny squeaking ball of fur looks like a cross between a bunny and a mouse. Researchers have long warned that the diminutive “rock rabbit” may be at high risk of extinction due to climate change. But a new study suggests the American pika may be far more resilient in the face of global warming than previously thought.

Author of the paper, Arizona State University Emeritus Professor Andrew Smith, tells Treehugger he didn’t set out to be a pika biologist when he began his work in the Sierra Nevada. But each study led to more interesting questions about the fascinating mammals and now he has studied them for more than 50 years.

Smith emphasizes that climate change is “the most compelling issue facing mankind,” but says that the American pika is adapting remarkably well.

In an extensive review published in the Journal of Mammalogy, Smith offers evidence that populations of the American pika are healthy across their extensive range, which extends from British Columbia and Alberta, Canada to northern New Mexico.

He found that populations in potential pika habitat in western North American mountains was high. He found no noticeable climate factor that played a part in the areas with and without pikas.

Pikas Show Resiliency

Pika Looking out from its Burrow
Pikas find shade to deal with hotter habitats. JeffGoulden / Getty Images

In his work, Smith also discovered that pkas are able to survive even at hot, low-elevation sites. There are active pika populations at Bodie California State Historic Park, the Mono Craters, Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve, Lava Beds National Monument, and the Columbia River Gorge, which are all hot, low-elevation sites. This shows how American pikas are resilient and can adapt to warmer temperatures by retreating into cooler, underground habitats during the day and adding more foraging time at night.

Smith says he has an actual stack of press releases more than 3 inches high, which sound like this: “The evidence seems unequivocal: The American pika is rapidly vanishing from the mountains of the western U.S., and scientists say it is climate change that has imperiled these tiny mammals.”

But the problem with that evaluation, Smith says, is that it’s not true.

“When I hike in the Sierra (wearing my pika T-shirt), and encounter fellow hikers, they say to me, after learning that I have studied pikas for a long time: ‘Oh, you must be so sad that they are going extinct,’“ he says.

“So my impetus to writing my review was to get the record straight. The myriad of press releases fudge the available record on pikas, exaggerate findings, tell half-truths (often using my data), and misleadingly extrapolate very local findings – often from isolated marginal populations – to the overall range of the species.”

Most of the studies that have raised concerns over the pika’s fate are selective and are based on only a small number of sites in the animal’s geographic range, Smith says.

That doesn’t mean that all pika populations are robust, he says. There are some areas where they have disappeared from their habitats, but these are typically small, isolated areas.

“Due to the relatively poor ability of pikas to disperse between areas, those habitats are not likely to be recolonized, particularly in light of our warming climate,” Smith says. “In spite of the general health of pikas across their range, these losses represent a one-way street, leading to a gradual loss of some pika populations. Fortunately for pikas, their preferred talus habitat in the major mountain cordilleras is larger and more contiguous, so the overall risk to this species is low.” 

Although he may have accidentally become a pika biologist, Smith now extolls the virtues of the species he has studied for half a century. They’re ideal to study, he says, because they’re active during the day, don’t hibernate, are quite vocal, have distinctive habitats, and characteristic scats.

“Oh, and do I need to mention that they are cute and fun to watch!” he says in an email. 

“I write this while in the Sierra Nevada, looking across June Lake at the Mono Craters, where I have studied pikas in a moon-scape environment. I really understand the ecology of pikas, yet cannot understand how pikas survive there. But they have probably been there for centuries. This past summer, however, was excruciatingly hot, so I went to check on my population yesterday (girding for the worst). They were there, scampering across the rocks.”