September 4, 2009—Global warming is putting the pika, a hamster-like mammal, in peril. High in the Colorado mountains, a National Geographic researcher is trying to find out why its numbers are falling.
Video by Public Television's Wild Chronicles from National Geographic Mission Programs
AUTUMN IN THE ROCKY MOUNTAINS A TIME OF CHANGE.
ASPENS TURN GOLDEN
AND THE BULL ELK, IN THE MIDST OF THEIR MATING SEASON, WORK HARD TO CATCH THE EYE AND EARS OF THE LADIES.
UP IN THE HIGHEST PEAKS, ANOTHER CALL RINGS OUT.
ITS THE PINT-SIZED PRINCE OF THE ALPINE TUNDRA A RELATIVE OF THE RABBIT KNOWN AS THE PIKA.
PIKAS ARE AMONG THE WORLDS HIGHEST-DWELLING ANIMALS, OFTEN CHOOSING THE MOST FRIGID MOUNTAINTOPS TO CALL HOME.
PIKAS, ONCE COMMON IN MOUNTAIN RANGES AROUND THE WORLD, ARE VANISHING
EVEN IN PROTECTED PLACES LIKE ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK.
TO INVESTIGATE THESE DISAPPEARANCES NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC GRANTEE ROB GURALNICK AND HIS PIKA RESEARCH TEAM ARE MAKING THE TREK TO THE TUNDRA.
THROUGHOUT THE SUMMER MONTHS THE BIOLOGISTS WILL ROUTINELY CANVASS SITES WHERE PIKAS HAVE BEEN SPOTTED IN THE PAST IN ORDER TO DETERMINE HOW MANY ARE LEFT.
Were losing a very characteristic alpine denizen something that a lot of people recognize and see when they go out there, thats sort of now going missing on mountaintops. And so the question becomes, whats going on in the Rockies, where the stronghold is in this very rich area for pika habitat.
TODAY, THE PIKAS ARE ELUSIVE BUT FORTUNATELY THEY LEAVE THEIR TELLTALE SIGNS OF THEIR PRESENCE BEHIND.
Its a great collection of scat here And a little urine station, you can see the white Each of these little peppercorns is a Pika scat some fresh, some not.
ROBS TEAM ALSO FINDS PLENTY OF MINIATURE HAYSTACKS GRASS AND FLOWERS THE ANIMALS LAY OUT TO DRY.
Ooh, thats a great one! YeahTheres even some fresh stuff here, yeah.
unlike most of the other alpine species, they dont shut down in the winter. Marmots, other mammals hibernate. Pikas dont hibernate, thats part of what theyre doing when they hay is collect that vegetation for the winter so that they can sustain themselves.
BACK IN THE LAB THE TEAM ANALYZES THE PIKA DATA
THE FIRST RESULTS SUGGEST THAT THE PIKA IS HEADED THE WAY OF MANY OTHER SMALL ALPINE MAMMALS.
IN A WIDER STUDY, ROB MAPPED THE TEMPERATURE AND THE HISTORIC DISTRIBUTION OF MANY SMALL ALPINE MAMMALS
HE FOUND THAT MOST OF THE SPECIES USED TO LIVE AT LOWER ELEVATIONS ACROSS LARGER AREAS.
SOMETHING IS DRIVING THE MAMMALS HIGHER UP THE MOUNTIANS AND ROB LOOKS TO THE CLIMATE FOR ANSWERS.
AS CARBON DIOXIDE AND OTHER GREENHOUSE GAS EMISSIONS INCREASE TEMPERATURES AROUND THE GLOBE ARE CLIMBING.
EVEN IN THE ROCKIES.
They have to really have a good little internal heater going and a high metabolism so that they can generate enough heat to stay warm in the winter. Then in turn because theyre generating so much heat thats not something you can necessarily shut off in the summer so most of the time alpine stays pretty cool in the summer but if you get a really really hot streak in the alpine pikas are not able to thermo-regulate or cool themselves down really easily because their metabolism is so high.
WHEN IT GETS TOO HOT THE LITTLE PIKAS OVERHEAT AND DIE.
AS THE CLIMATE WARMS SOME SPECIES HAVE BEEN MOVING TO HIGHER ELEVATIONS TO SEEK COOLER WEATHER.
BUT THE PIKAS ALREADY INHABIT THE HIGHEST POINT THERES NOWHERE LEFT FOR THEM TO GO.
as well as being a loss of a great charismatic, wonderful taxon, it would be that bellwether of further changes that are likely to be occurring not just to pikas but to all organisms that live in the alpine. And of course thats a real concern. We start losing ecosystems and the services they provide to humans.
AT LEAST THIS YEAR, MANY PIKAS HAVE BEEN ABLE TO BEAT THE HEAT
AND NEXT SPRING, THE CALL OF THE PIKA WILL RING OUT ONCE AGAIN ACROSS THE ALPINE.