Columbia River Gorge’s tiny pikas may be valuable indicator species for climate change

By Casey O’Hara (MESM 2014), The Oregonian, July 16, 2014. Casey is currently completing the Mass Media Science & Engineering Fellowship by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), and writing for the Oregonian newspaper.


An American pika forages on a rockslide, or talus slope, overlooking the Columbia River Gorge. Photo credit: Johanna Varner, University of Utah


The Columbia River Gorge is home to an unusual population of pikas, possibly the most adorable harbingers of climate change.

And in an effort to determine the number and distribution of Columbia Gorge pikas, the U.S. Geological Survey is deputizing citizens as scientists to increase the scope of their research.

Pikas – small, round, fluffy cousins of rabbits – are well-adapted to cooler climates and are typically found in high altitude habitats near the timberline of rock-strewn mountain slopes.

Columbia Gorge pikas, technically a population of American pika Ochotona princeps, are unusual in that they thrive at low elevations, only a couple hundred feet above sea level.

“There seems to be a certain goldilocks set of factors that allow the gorge to support pikas at such a low elevation,” said USGS researcher Erik Beever. “It’s never super hot or super cold, there’s forage available year-round and there’s a massive vertical wall that provides shade throughout most of the day.”

Pikas’ sensitivity to temperature extremes makes them an important early warning indicator for encroaching climate change.

“Anything that increases summer temperature is a problem, and anything that decreases snowpack in winter is a problem,” said David Shepherdson, deputy conservation manager at the Oregon Zoo. Snowpack creates an insulating layer to protect from the cold, much like a snow cave.

Understanding how the Columbia Gorge pikas survive in such a different habitat provides insight into the resilience of pikas and their ecosystems in the face of a warming planet.

Read the rest of the story here.


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