Top Ten Wildlife Areas We Love (and Would Hate to Lose)

American Pika
  |  Gorp.com
American Pika
No Small Thing: The pika portends big problems to come (NPS)

Why We Love It:

You may have seen this small mammal poking its head out from under scree fields the last time you went hiking or climbing in the mountains of the western U.S. The pika, a relative of hares and rabbits, weighs about half a pound and ranges from three to five inches in length. In a recent WWF Internet survey, the pika was voted one of the three cutest animals in North America.

Where It's Happiest:

Pikas can be found living among the broken rocks at the base of cliffs. They eat primarily hay, cutting and drying it in the sun for winter provisions. Generally solitary creatures, closely related animals live near each other in talus fields. A mother pika usually conceives a litter one month before the snowmelt, giving her two to four offspring a fighting chance to find the best spot to live come spring. They communicate through a range of vocalizations, or by rubbing scent glands in their cheeks on rocks.

The Cold, Hard Numbers:

Once a common animal across the mountainous regions of the west, pika numbers haven't been studied over time. The most recent study, published in 2003 in the Journal of Mammology, showed nine out of 25 populations have disappeared, causing biologists to conclude that pikas are in an "extinction spasm.

Who's to Blame:

The study suggests that pikas may be the "canary in the coal mine" for the impacts of global warming. Biologists believe that global warming will drive pikas to seek higher elevations for the moist, cool, montane habitats they need. Eventually, pikas could be trapped in "mountainous islands," where further climate change may wipe them out completely. "Losses of pikas are disturbing because they are often assumed to be locally abundant and, in decades past, scientists assumed that alpine and subalpine ecosystems were relatively undisturbed because of their isolation from most human activities," says USGS ecologist Erik Beever. "Losses are continuing even now, and the rate of losses has changed on a scale of decades to years.

When It's Gone:

Pikas may be just the first of many alpine creatures to lose suitable habitat because of global warming. Scientists estimate that 10 to 35 percent of alpine and subalpine species may be lost within a few decades, including alpine marmots and ground squirrels.

Signs of Life:

Pikas may have been in a similar situation before, according to paleoecological evidence. Populations have expanded and contracted over geologic time, though Beever and his colleagues believe the current downward trend is more severe than in times past. If global climate change can be controlled, there may be some hope for this cute but hardy critter.


Published: 18 Mar 2004 | Last Updated: 8 Nov 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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