Pika are small, cute mammals that live in broken rock habitats or talus fields high in the mountains above treeline. Adorable as they are, these critters might have a serious story to tell about the impacts of climate change. Research is showing a correlation between the loss of ice and permafrost under the talus, and the disappearance of the animals. As temperatures rise, where pika live could indicate the health of a watershed – and foretell our future water supply.

“A potato with Mickey Mouse ears.” That’s how Chris Ray describes the American pika, a small rabbit-like mammal that lives high up in mountain ranges. And she should know – she’s been studying the critter for over 30 years – and pika do have a high cuteness factor. But it might be more apt to call them a canary rather than a potato – as in, a canary in a coal mine.

That’s because pika like it cold. The broken rock habitats or talus fields where they live collect lots of seasonal ice and permafrost keeping things underneath nice and chilly. But as the climate warms, there could be less of that ice, and that could put the pikas in peril – and impact our water supply.

So Ray, a researcher at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and INSTAAR – the Institute for Arctic and Alpine Research is leading a team to find out how the pika are doing and, well, whether or not they’re stressed out. She says they found that pikas are less stressed where they occur right in the sweet spots of the watershed where there’s seasonal ice underneath the taluses.

Chris Ray and students

So how do they know if the animals are stressed? They’ll collect blood and tissue samples to measure hormones and other indicators. Chris and her students have set up study areas like one we’ve hiked to today in the mountains above Boulder. Earlier this morning they set out traps to catch the pika – and within an hour two had been captured. The first step is to anesthetize the pikas. After all, there’s going to be a fair amount of probing that any one of us would find uncomfortable.

Chris transfers the pika into something she calls the “anesthetizing chamber,” which she made out of a pasta jar and an old-time film canister, which holds the anesthetic. She says they’ll just breathe it in and it slowly puts them to sleep.

And as the pika begin to drift off – doing things like licking or blinking or maybe walking wobbly – they can begin to examine the animal more closely to find out what sex it is, whether its been tagged before, and take those tissue samples. I confess that the way they take blood leaves me a bit wobbly so I’m going to avert my eyes for this part of the procedure where they take blood from a capillary bed behind the eye. Chris says that the area opens and closes easily and that the pika’s body spends a lot of resources to keep it antiseptic, so it’s the safest method for the animal.

Once they’ve collected their data the pika is released back to the talus field where they found him or her. They will track a few dozen animals over time and then evaluate the health of this particular ecosystem. So far they’ve started to see some real correlation between where the pikas are located and climate change, but Chris says they’re going to need to do a lot more study.

Megan Mueller

But this kind research is time-consuming and individual researchers can’t cover a lot of ground. So that’s where you come in. If you’re a citizen scientist – or want to be – Megan Mueller, senior conservation biologist with Rocky Mountain Wild, would love to have your help. Her organization is taking advantage of the trend in the U.S. of people doing citizen science to try to answer pressing environmental questions. Megan leads volunteers to help with the pika research to try to make a real contribution to figuring out how pika are doing in Colorado. Rocky Mountain Wild worked with Chris Ray and Colorado Parks and Wildlife to develop a program that they now run in partnership with the Denver Zoo called the Front Range Pika Project.

Over the course of the summer, volunteers go out to monitoring sites, which could be a short jaunt, or a serious trek away. Some are pretty easy and some are long hikes with lots of off-trail navigating, and bushwhacking, and crossing creeks, and getting on top of mountains, so it’s a real adventure. Once they get to the sites they determine whether the pikas are present by looking for them or by listening for their calls (which sound like a squeaky toy). They also measure other variables to learn about possible impacts from climate change such as putting temperature data loggers under the talus to gauge what temperature that the pikas are experiencing, as well as collecting scat to get genetics and measure stress hormones.

Beyond determining how the animals are doing, this research can also offer guidance about how to help the pika to be more resilient. Things like building rocky patches between talus fields so they don’t have to be out in the heat when they forage.

And by helping them, we might be helping ourselves. Chris says pika need to be cool in the summer and warm in the winter, like all of us. They’re a little bit more sensitive, though. They don’t sweat or pant to shed heat, so they get down under the rocks, and if there’s permafrost or seasonal ice under there they can shed heat even faster. Or if there’s running water under the talus they can shed their heat quickly. So they need that resource. We also need that resource. It turns out that taluses produce more of the late summer flow out of our watersheds than other areas. That late summer flow is really important for topping off our reservoirs.

So there’s a good chance that if you don’t see pika in an area where they used to be, it might be telling us about what could happen to our own water resources as the climate warms.

Reprinted with permission of H2O Radio (original posting).