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The 'Cutest Mammal Of All' Is On The Move: Temperature Changes Cause Pika Habitat Shifts

National Parks Service
Pikas live in high elevation, rocky fields with lots of plants, but increasing temperatures are pushing them up-slope.

A change of habitat by a small mammal is having an impact on our mountain ecosystems, and the pika is being used to help understand high elevation mountain ecosystems. 

"In 2009, highly scientific poll sent to mammal biologists [found that] pikas were actually voted the cutest mammal of all. They are small mammals, they are closely related to rabbits and they are about the size and shape of a potato with big round ears," said Johanna Varner, an assistant professor of biology at Colorado Mesa University.

Pikas thrive in rocky fields with plentiful grasses at high alpine elevations. Varner warns that changes in temperature are altering that terrain, forcing pikas to move to higher elevations. 

"So the basic idea there is that as the climate warms, you have both this double whammy of warmer summers where the pikas are restricting their activity, they can't collect enough food and also winters that have less snowpack where you see them actually being ironically exposed to colder temperatures over the winter," she said. "And so these factors have combined to make lower elevation habitats, you know, seem to be less suitable under a changing climate."

The movement of pikas upslope is having a cascading impact on the ecosystem.

"First, they serve as food base for certain kinds of predators, especially weasels. Weasels are definitely the animal that rely on pikas most as a source of prey," Varner said.

The movement of these small herbivores not only impacts weasels who eat pika, but  also plants the pikas eat.

"They can have big effects on the meadow vegetation based on what plants they choose to eat and what plants they choose to cache. And so in that way some scientists have considered them to be ecosystem engineers, which just means that they have a lot of wide-ranging effects on the ecosystem in which they are found."

Varner will present her pika research during two seminars at Utah State University on January 16 and 17.