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Columbia River Gorge’s pikas may be valuable indicator species for climate change

A pika vocalizes while perched upon rocks in the East Humboldt Range in Nevada. Researchers are monitoring pikas in the Columbia River Gorge, as the mammals’ sensitivity to differences in temperature make them important early warning indicators to climate change.

Photo by Erik Beever/USGS
A pika vocalizes while perched upon rocks in the East Humboldt Range in Nevada. Researchers are monitoring pikas in the Columbia River Gorge, as the mammals’ sensitivity to differences in temperature make them important early warning indicators to climate change.

The Columbia River Gorge is home to an unusual population of pikas, possibly the most adorable harbingers of climate change.

And in an effort to determine the number and distribution of Columbia Gorge pikas, the U.S. Geological Survey is deputizing citizens as scientists to increase the scope of their research.

Pikas — small, round, fluffy cousins of rabbits — are well-adapted to cooler climates and are typically found in high altitude habitats near the timberline of rock-strewn mountain slopes.

Columbia Gorge pikas, technically a population of American pika Ochotona princeps, are unusual in that they thrive at low elevations, only a couple hundred feet above sea level.

“There seems to be a certain goldilocks set of factors that allow the Gorge to support pikas at such a low elevation,” said USGS researcher Erik Beever. “It’s never super hot or super cold, there’s forage available year-round and there’s a massive vertical wall that provides shade throughout most of the day.”

Pikas’ sensitivity to temperature extremes makes them an important early warning indicator for encroaching climate change.

“Anything that increases summer temperature is a problem, and anything that decreases snowpack in winter is a problem,” said David Shepherdson, deputy conservation manager at the Oregon Zoo. Snowpack creates an insulating layer to protect from the cold, much like a snow cave.

Understanding how the Columbia Gorge pikas survive in such a different habitat provides insight into the resilience of pikas and their ecosystems in the face of a warming planet.

University of Utah researcher Johanna Varner sees pikas as an excellent entry point for getting the community involved in scientific research. Pikas are “charismatic and fascinating little creatures,” she said, ideal for “getting people to think about local effects of climate change.”

Beever, Varner and other researchers have trained more than 175 volunteers to traverse the trails of the Gorge in search of pikas.

Employing volunteers in research, according to Varner, is a big “win-win-win” for scientific outreach. Volunteers learn first-hand “who scientists are, what scientists do and how science is done,” she explains. In addition, volunteers help researchers collect meaningful data over a larger spatial scale, and they provide a fresh perspective that sometimes leads to new questions for further research.

The Columbia Gorge pika census, supported in part by the Oregon Zoo Foundation’s Future for Wildlife grant program, will be completed in September. Continuing efforts will involve volunteers in monitoring changes in pika population, distribution and habitat throughout the Gorge. People interested in participating can sign up at www.oregonzoo.org/cascades-pika-watch.

“Pika Watch is an ideal opportunity for people who love hiking and the outdoors to take action for wildlife,” said Shepherdson. “When communities collect data through citizen science, they’re making an investment in the ecosystem.”

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