Pikas are small relatives of rabbits who live in the alpine habitats of the western US and Canada. They are damn cute. They are also an indicator species - kind of like canaries in the environmental coal mine - that can help us to understand the effects of climate change. Chris Ray, a biologist and pika researcher from the University of Colorado, came for dinner and a talk on Friday to give us the details.
It seems that in research done in the Great Basin in the Western US, pikas are disappearing from areas in California and Nevada where they were once plentiful. The hypothesis is that swings in temperature and snowpack attributable to climate change make it impossible for sensitive pikas, who don’t hibernate, to insulate themselves from cold and heat. Among the few places in the Great Basin study where pika populations remained robust were old mine tailings. There seems to be something about the habitat tailings provide that is beneficial to the pikas.
Before dinner, we trekked up to the Ute-Ulay with Dr. Ray in the midst of a downpour. While we waited out the storm in the car, the intrepid scientist donned her raincoat and went out to scout for pika pellets, which look like peppercorns, in the pouring rain. She found some.
What does this mean? Well, what’s clear is that at one time, pikas lived at the mine site. We don’t know if they still do but Dr. Ray’s suggestion is that as we are envisioning what the site could be, we consider the possibility of a research area where tailings could be arranged and rearranged in a controlled way to find out just what it is about these piles of mine left-overs that can help to sustain pikas when undisturbed areas in the same temperature range cannot.
The Ute-Ulay Center for Pika Research? We aren’t ruling anything out yet.