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Poor Pikas Losing Their California Habitat to Climate Change

Feb 03, 2015 11:48 AM EST

American pikas, a pint-sized rabbit relative, are quickly losing their California mountain habitat to climate change, according to new research.

These cute creatures have demonstrated their incredible resilience in the face of danger, but even pikas may not be able to adapt to our increasingly warming world. As temperatures rise, pikas are abandoning their low-elevation habitat and moving to higher ground to escape the heat.

Researchers at the University of California, Santa Cruz surveyed 67 locations with historical records of pikas and found that the animals have disappeared from 10 of them - that's 15 percent of the surveyed sites.

These poor pikas are struggling, and especially with 2014 confirmed as the hottest year on record, these animals are at risk of local extinction.

"This same pattern of extinctions at sites with high summer temperatures has also been observed in the Great Basin region," researcher Joseph Stewart said in a statement.

When summer temperatures are too high (like this past summer), pikas are forced to stay underground to avoid overheating. Less time spent foraging for food means less to eat, which increases the likelihood of local extinction.

Moving up the mountain is an option for these pikas. With high metabolic rates and thick fur, they are well adapted to the cold temperatures at high elevations. However, this could be just as harmful as it is helpful.

"They are uniquely adapted to cold temperatures, but these same adaptations make the species vulnerable to global warming," Stewart said.

To better determine the fate of the species in the face of climate change, the researchers analyzed a total of 34 different global climate models, taking into account atmospheric sensitivity to greenhouse gases and different levels of human greenhouse gas emissions.

They found that by 2070, pikas will be gone from much of their historical range in California - that's 39 to 88 percent of sites.

And this isn't just bad news for pikas, but for other local wildlife as well - they are prey to many species and alter vegetation and soil composition by foraging.

"Pikas are a model organism for studying climate change, and their decline at low-elevation sites suggests that the future for other species is not great either," Stewart added. "The problem is that the climate is changing faster than species can adapt or disperse to new sites."

The results were published in the Journal of Biogeography.

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