Trapped at the top of the world

Collared pikas are kleptomaniacs. They like to steal hay. But they also collect their own, said wildlife biologist Kieran O’Donovan,…

Collared pikas are kleptomaniacs.

They like to steal hay.

But they also collect their own, said wildlife biologist Kieran O’Donovan, who’s only seen the fluffy creatures steal from one another a handful of times.

O’Donovan is studying the impact of climate change on collared pika populations in the Yukon.

The hamster-sized fur balls are a good bio-indictor species, he said during a Yukon Science Institute lecture Sunday night.

And they’re in danger.

“It’s like when we first found frogs with arms growing out of their heads and thought, ‘OK, something’s not right here,’” he said.

Pikas have one litter, with three to four babies a year.

And the babies only travel several hundred metres to establish their own territory, as opposed to several kilometres.

“It’s these low dispersal rates and low reproductive rates that make them a good bio-indicator species,” said O’Donovan.

For pikas, one bad winter can cause a population crash, he said.

And bad winters for the cute downy guys are not necessarily cold ones.

The tiny members of the rabbit family, like their jumpy relations, don’t hibernate.

After foraging and haying all summer, creating a stockpile of food in the alpine talus patches they call home, they remain active all winter burrowing under the snow and eating from their hay piles.

They use the snow for insulation, said O’Donovan.

“So if there’s a temperature spike and the snow melts, then it gets cold and the ground and their food supply ices over, it could result in a major population collapse.”

And with their slow reproductive rates, it would take pikas awhile to recover, he said.

So, climate plays a very important role in pika population dynamics.

As climate change continues, and regions start to warm, pikas and other cold weather species will start to migrate to environments that better suit their needs.

Species will travel further north, or head further up mountains to higher elevations, said O’Donovan.

“But species, like pikas, that already live on mountain tops have nowhere to go,” he said.

“As the planet warms, they’re trapped.”

In Asia, where there’s over 20 species of pika, the ili pika is already in trouble.

They’re on the decline, said O’Donovan, who expects to see more and more species become extinct.

Yukon pikas, in the Ruby Mountains near Silver City, have also experienced a population decline.

In the winter of 2000, there was a massive temperature spike that likely caused the collapse, said O’Donovan.

To substantiate his theories, O’Donovan plans to branch out, and hopes to begin monitoring pika populations on Vulcan Mountain and in the St. Elias ice fields.

In these fields, rocky peaks rise up from a sea of frozen snow, like a glacial archipelago. And on these isolated, rocky “islands in the sky,” O’Donovan discovered at least five pikas.

“They basically cling to the sides of cliffs,” he said.

“And it’s amazing the lush vegetation you find in these tiny, rocky meadows where they live.”

But entering new pika territory is not always easy.

Never mind the flight into the ice fields, the snowshoes, tents and all the gear.

Pikas don’t like visitors.

They’re very territorial, said O’Donovan.

“And they exclude everyone, even biologists.”

When pikas see biologists coming, they puff up their fuzzy chests and peep threateningly.

But O’Donovan isn’t deterred.

“They’re exceedingly cute,” he said.

“The second cutest animal in the world, beaten only slightly by the polar bear.”

And climate change is threatening them too, he said.

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