The disappearing squeak

Within the southern Rocky Mountains, above 8,000 feet, lives an animal whose population decline could give scientists insight into how climate change will affect Colorado: the pika.

The American pika is a furry herbivore that is about the size of the average human fist. They are closely related to rabbits and make their home underneath broken piles of rock called talus. In the early 2000s, researchers began to notice population decline in some areas possibly due to climate change. One current model of future temperatures predicts that the species will disappear from the Rocky Mountain National Park within this century. However, their tiny stature, territorial nature and high-altitude habitat makes gathering widespread population data difficult.

It was this need for data that sparked the creation of the Front Range Pika Project. This citizen science effort was founded in 2010 after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declined to protect the pika as an endangered species, citing a lack of information across their entire habitat. The FRPP aims to bridge this knowledge gap by using amateur scientists to collect mass data on pikas. This information could tell researchers not just the effect of climate change on this singular species, but others in the region as well.

“Pikas are pretty sensitive to variations in temperature and vegetation and snowpack,” said Megan Mueller, FRPP co-director from Rocky Mountain Wild, a nonprofit wildlife conservation organization. “So that makes them kind of an indicator species for what’s happening to our ecosystems with climate change”.

Volunteer researchers have to go through two training sessions, one in a classroom and one out in the field. Once trained, they hike to one of several sites with known pika populations. There, they listen and look for signs of pikas, collect scat and record habitat characteristics such as the size of the talus. This data is then shared with scientists to study and interpret. With continual data from the same sites over time, they should see clearer trends on what climate change is doing to the species.

“One major goal is to make sure we’re collecting high quality, reliable data,” said Erica Garroutte, a co-director of the FRPP who works for the Denver Zoo. “But our second goal is to raise awareness among our volunteers…about what they can do to mitigate the impacts of climate change”.

Mueller explained that pikas use snowpack as insulation from frigid winter temperatures. As the snowpack begins to melt sooner, there is concern that pikas may freeze to death. On the other hand, they are extremely vulnerable to lethal overheating in the summer. With increasing temperatures, they may become even more so.

“There used to be a hundred pikas in this one area that I study them in,” said Chris Ray, a Research Associate for the Institute of Artic and Alpine Research. “And in some years I’ve seen as few as three.”

Ray helps supervise the FRPP and was awarded the 2018 Denver Zoological Conservation Award for her pika research. She began studying pikas with an interest in their naturally fragmented habitat when she noticed that they were disappearing. Ray then shifted her focus to look into possible reasons for their decline, including diseases and their response to climate change.

Part of that research involves capturing live pikas, gathering physical data from them and then ear tagging them to continue observations on them in the wild. But there is one valuable data source that doesn’t require a live pika on hand: their poop.

“Pika poop is probably the cutest poop,” said Ashley Whipple, a master’s student in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado.

Whipple works exclusively with tiny, peppercorn-like pika scat to study stress in the species. Over the past year, she collected more than 300 scat samples from eight different pika sites, spending 10 to 12 hour days out in the field.

Due to their territorial nature, a single pika will only defecate in one spot, their own private latrine which they protect from other pikas. This makes it easy for Whipple to track stress not only on the species as a whole in a particular area, but each individual pika.

Whipple is now in the process of weighing, drying and extracting stress hormone metabolites from each sample. Her hypothesis is that pikas that live in areas without ice will be more stressed than pikas who live in areas covered in ice.

Maya Livio, a PhD candidate in Intermedia Art, Writing and Performance at CU, spent the past summer working with and observing Whipple out among the talus slopes as a study on how scientists can collaborate with others.

“In terms of learning the ropes and getting involved it’s super easy,” said Livio.

It took a few trips out into the field before Livio saw her first pika, but eventually she got so close to one that it was licking her shoe. Soon she could recognize their call, which she described as a “high pitched sort of squawk”.

More than just learning about the intricacies of pikas, Livio learned about the entire alpine ecosystem, from plants to birds.

“Citizen science creates a deeper respect for the work of scientists and the way science is done,” Livio said. “That definitely happened for me.”

As an individual researcher, Ray can only study pikas intensively in a few spots. Having over 100 citizen scientists in the field greatly multiplies the amount of data available to her. With their help, she hopes they can change the trajectory of this species and perhaps others too. She has already seen the survey methods that she helped develop for the FRPP adopted by other citizen science efforts.

“It’s really gratifying to see that project growing,” Ray said.

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