Hiking among the many talus slopes of Glacier National Park, one might be very lucky to catch a glimpse of the elusive pika. The small member of the rabbit family is losing its footing in similar habitats across the country due to a warming climate.
The researchers are collaborating with citizen science volunteers to find out how the glacier population is doing. On a sunny August morning recently, Glacier National Park conservation staff hiked Jami Belt, director of Glacier’s Citizen Science program, to the Piegan Pass trail to search for pika globules.
Volunteers collect and catalog the pellets using an app. The pellets contain skin cells and will be sent to a lab in Missoula for analysis. Extracting DNA from these skin cells will give researchers information about the pikas that left the pellicle, but also how genetically they are related to each other and how they moved across the landscape.
Belt stopped just before Began’s Pass and made his way up the talus slope, ordering everyone to start looking for haystacks—which could be found in the shadows or crevices of large rocks. Haystacks are evidence of the hard work that pikas do in storing plants for the winter, as they do not hibernate.
It wasn’t long before the pika, with its short limbs and round body, was spotted darting between the rocks, perfecting a pose. Small creatures with a fur coat have short, rounded ears.
University of Utah professor and pika researcher Lucas Muir Horner wears a flat blue hat with pika embroidered in the front. He was familiar with Glacier as an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin when he got the idea to study pikas in 2007.
He conducted that study and pitched his efforts to Glacier National Park Reserve, which funded the project for the following summers in 2008 and 2009. This search consisted of scanning the talus fields in the garden to look for pikas or signs of their presence there, such as hay. Stacks and pellets.
He said at that time, the residents in the park were doing well. Now, 15 years later, Muir Horner is back to see what pikas are doing.
“The main aim of this is to re-scan the sites that we surveyed 15 years ago, to see if there were any changes and density in certain patches, increase or decrease,” Muir Horner said. “We want to see what the population trend is: increasing, staying the same, or decreasing – and if so, where are certain places in the garden that seem to be doing better than others?”
In 2008, when Muir Horner was conducting his research, there was a petition to put the pika on the endangered species list. At the time, Belt said, not much was known about pikas in Glacier Park, and scientists began brainstorming ways they could contribute to a revision of the endangered species list. The park had already started its Citizen Science program to conduct submarine surveys, and Belt decided that searching for pikas might be a good fit for volunteers.
“They’re really cute and it’s really rewarding. It’s like a scavenger hunt to get out and look under rocks and in little holes for signs of pika,” Belt said.
According to the National Wildlife Federation, although the polar bear has been an icon of climate change for decades, the pika is well-positioned to compete for that unwelcome title.
In addition to how warmer temperatures lead to changes in vegetation and less snow accumulation, pikas can only withstand fevers of up to four degrees before it becomes fatal.
Muir Horner said pikas already have a high core body temperature like other morph rabbits, with thick fur that’s useful during harsh winters but not as good at dissipating summer heat. This means that the pika’s ability to move is limited when it’s hot outside, which affects its ability to gather enough vegetation to survive the winter.
“Many species as the climate changes and the weather changes, they just migrate, or they go somewhere else that has more food, better temperatures or better rainfall. While pikas are really stuck in their ankle habitats, They are very bad at dispersing from patch to patch.”
A 2000 study by researcher Eric Weaver was one of the first times scientists began to take an interest in declining pika numbers in the United States. Weaver looked at areas where people said they saw pikas, keeping track of sightings dating back to the first decade of the 20th century. The areas he surveyed included the Great Basin, the Sierra Nevada, southern Oregon and more. Muir Horner said that in many of the places Weaver went, he found no signs of pika.
“The main factor was that they were hiding from lower altitude locations, which is associated with higher temperatures. And that’s when people really started thinking, could higher temperatures be a problem for pikas?” Muir-Horner said.
Glacier Park is the northernmost area in the Lower 48 where pika research takes place. The DNA extracted from the pikas from this year’s study will look at the resilience of the population, Belt said.
“The more genetic diversity a population has, the more likely it is that they will be able to adapt to changing conditions and keep moving in the landscape,” Belt said.
About 50 volunteers work on the Pika project. During this August survey, Glacier National Park Reserve staff were invited to participate in the study, which they continue to fund.
It’s important to be able to have volunteers in an outdoor classroom with professionals like Belt collect data that will inform decision-making about how to mitigate climate change, said Doug Mitchell, executive director of The Conservancy.
“We’re thinking about caring for this place — we sit in this wonderful landscape, and we’re so lucky to be here. We want future generations to have the experience we just had of watching pika emerge from the rocks,” Mitchell said. Educating policy makers about this kind of decision is really important and it’s hard work.”
The DNA extractions from the pika pellets will be done over the winter, but they won’t have a full genetic map ready until the study concludes at the end of next year.
Once they have their genetic map, scientists will have a good idea of how they can help mitigate the decline in isolated populations. This could include identifying and protecting key communication pathways between the ankle fields, for example. But anecdotally, Muir Horner said that so far this summer, they’re seeing pikas occupy most of the sites they’ve surveyed for more than a decade.
“That’s really good news. “But, we haven’t really had a chance to look at the data to see if there have been any changes in population density yet, but I would say the early signs are that pikas seem to be doing well in the park.” Muir- said Horner.
To learn more about the park’s pika surveys, go to nps.gov/glac and search their Citizen Science page, or visit the Glacier National Park Conservancy’s current projects page at their website glacier.org.
Reporter Taylor Inman can be contacted at 406-758-4433 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.