For nearly a decade, biologists with the nonprofit Rocky Mountain Wild and the Denver Zoo have studied pikas on the Front Range; this summer, that work is expanding to the White River National Forest. Scientists want to know how a warming climate will impact the alpine ecosystem and are hoping pikas can provide some clues.
Pikas are pretty distinctive.
"They look like a potato, with mickey mouse ears, and no visible tail, and they're just adorable," said Megan Mueller, a conservation biologist with Rocky Mountain Wild and co-director of their Front Range Pika Project, a decade-old study of the small mammals. Mueller coordinates field studies, including those on Independence Pass in the White River National Forest.
On a recent morning, Mueller was looking to record where pikas are now living, so she lead the way off trail, into a stretch of talus, a field of jagged, large rocks.
“The best place to look for them is underneath kind of the largest rocks in the rock field, kind of along the edge,” she said.
We scrambled over large boulders along the side of a meadow, listening for the squeaky, chew-toy sound that is clear evidence that pikas are living in this talus field. This is also the first step for citizen scientists who will be participating in Mueller’s project.
Volunteers will trek to some key sites, note if pikas are present, and then record information about the habitat. Mueller said they'll note things like how big the rocks are, the proximity and types of vegetation and the depth of the crevices under the talus.
This data that will help scientists predict and track pikas’ response to climate change. The small mammals have historically thrived in high alpine ecosystems like this.
"I think if Independence Pass were to have a mascot, it would be the pika," said Karin Teague, executive director of the Independence Pass Foundation, which is working with Rocky Mountain Wild to mobilize volunteer scientists.
Even though pikas have been abundant on the Pass, scientists have seen their decline in other parts of the west, including southern Utah and parts of Nevada.
"Pikas are an indicator of the health of alpine ecosystems because they are so sensitive to changes in temperature and snowpack and vegetation," Mueller said.
That’s because of pikas’ unique biology, which is suited to cold climates. They have a high body temperature, a fast metabolism, and a thick coat that retains heat. They also seek out talus fields because the crevices under these large rocks are much warmer than the surface in the winter, especially when insulated by snow.
Surviving through the winter takes a lot of planning and work. Mueller said pikas stash an average of 69 pounds of grasses, wildflowers and shrubs in what's called a hay pile.
"Isn’t that amazing? That's about 14,000 trips from their territory out to the meadow and back throughout the summer," she said.
Pikas work really hard all summer — and as temperatures warm, it can be deadly. The same talus that keeps them warm in the winter provides shade and respite from the summer heat. They need that time to rest in the shade: Their bodies can only warm an additional 2 or 3 degrees.
“If they’re exposed to temperatures above 80 degrees Fahrenheit for long periods of time when they can’t get under the talus and cool off, they’ll die," Mueller explained.
So the warming climate poses a serious threat, and the data Rocky Mountain Wild gathers about pikas will provide information on a changing ecosystem.
For example, because pikas depend on snow for insulation in the winter, if that snow melts earlier in the spring when temperatures are still very cold at night, they might not survive. So a decline in pika populations could indicate trends about everything from snowmelt to water supply to threats to other species, like Canada lynx, that depend on a deep snowpack.
Karin Teague said this chance to contribute to a growing knowledge base is why she’s volunteering for the research project.
“It's just yet another indicator of what climate change is bringing to a place that we love and care about," she said.
Ultimately, Teague said, this project is about gaining first-hand experience with the realities of a changing natural world, and that goes beyond one species.
“I think what we're doing is creating a greater understanding of the animal, a greater intimacy with the landscape, and that's how we create great stewards,” Teague said.
Volunteer spots for this year are still open, and Mueller says they’ll be back again next summer, too.