I’m almost 11,500 feet, walking to our Front Range research sites when I hear chirps and turn around to see a small mammal scurrying through the rocks. The big rounded ears are telling: I am in the presence of an American pika and I could very well be the predator that it tries to warn the rest of its colony against.
American pikas are 7 or 8 inches long, are brown and black to camouflage themselves among rocks, and have no visible tail. They are one of the few animals in the Lower 48 that can live their entire lives above the treeline.
Pikas are herbivores, which means they eat the grasses and wild flowers found in high mountains. Because they have few options for foraging during the colder months, they spend the summer and fall drying food for the winter. They scoop up extra vegetation, lay it on rocks to dry (to prevent mold later), and store it in hay piles.
They do not hibernate during the winter, but rather grow an incredibly thick fur coat. This coat thins out a bit during the warmer months, but remains thick enough that pikas can easily overheat and die in prolonged temperatures as mild as 78 degrees Fahrenheit.
It is well known that our polar regions are warming faster than the rest of the planet, but this phenomenon also occurs in the mountains. For species like the American pika, the consequences can be dire.
Alpine environments are generally isolated from each other – often referred to as “islands in the sky” – making it nearly impossible to move between suitable habitats. In addition, pikas already live on top of mountains. As other species move upward for relief from the warmer temperatures, they have nowhere to go.
Locally, the Front Range Pika Project works to monitor pika populations in the Front Range, Rocky Mountain National Park and White River National Forest. It trains community scientists to survey the presence and absence of pika and to identify habitat characteristics.
There are also many ways to tackle climate change at the individual level. We can reduce our carbon footprint by consuming less meat and dairy products; choose to use public transportation, carpooling, cycling or walking to our destinations; reduce our overall consumption of goods; recycling and composting; and improving the energy efficiency of buildings.
If you’re not sure where to start to improve the energy efficiency of your home or office, Walking Mountains offers energy assessments through our energy efficiency programs in partnership with Energy Smart Colorado. The more we work to reduce our carbon footprint and slow climate change, the more species like the American pika have a better chance of survival in the decades to come.
Hiking in the Alps would certainly become a little quieter and a little less magical without these rock bunnies scurrying through the embankments, living year round in an area most are only able to visit.
AJ Lodge is a Winter Naturalist with the Walking Mountains Science Center. They can be found wandering the trails at all hours of the day, basking in the sun and chasing the call of the wild.