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American Pika and Climate Change: Tight-Knit Groups are Key To Species' Survival

Jan 31, 2016 07:30 PM EST
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The American pika may actually fare well in warmer temperatures brought on by climate change, according to a new study from Oregon State University. 

The American pika is a small, herbivorous mammal that is part of the same order that includes rabbits and hares. Pikas generally seek out icy pockets in rock fields or lava flows and live near other pikas in small patches of these cool habitats, according to a news release.

In the latest study, researchers collected information on where pikas live and how they move among habitat patches. They then were able to create distribution models for eight National Park Service areas in the western U.S. and forecast pika distribution 30, 60 and 90 years into the future, based on expected climate change scenarios. 

"If you look at the overall picture, the amount of suitable habitat will decline and temperatures will warm in most of these National Parks," Donelle Schwalm, lead author and Oregon State University post-doctoral researcher, said in the release. "But many of these sites have areas that are colder, higher and sometimes wetter than other areas, and pikas should do quite well there.

"In some parks, risk of extinction will increase," she added in the release. "But in other parks, like Grand Teton and Lassen, their populations should remain stable."

Maintaining connectivity among different pika populations is key to the critters' long-term survival, researchers say. This keeps a sustainable level of genetic diversity among a broader population and larger groups are more likely to overcome the inevitable downturns of extreme weather, predation and disease. 

"If you just have three or four pikas in a given area, that's a pretty small group and at the patch level, they can wink out pretty quickly," Clinton Epps, co-author of the study and an associate professor in the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, explained in the university's release. "But if you can maintain good connectivity, pikas can disperse from other patches and the overall system remains strong as long as habitat remains generally suitable."

Their study, recently published in the journal Global Change Biology, will help improve national park and pika conservation.

"We potentially could move pikas from vulnerable areas to locations with suitable habitat," Thomas Rodhouse, a biologist with the National Park Service, concluded. "Or we could discuss enhancing habitat and creating more connectivity, though you have to examine whether that is something we should be doing in a National Park. But this study allows us to begin having these strategic discussions."

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