Pika survival rates dry up with low moisture: In the Pacific Northwest, dry air interacts with low snow conditions to affect pika abundances at different elevations.
Source: Ecological Society of America,February 4, 2019
Summary: Endangered species of North American Pikas survival rate are decreasing, and researchers require to understand how climate change is affecting them with snowpack and VPD. Importance of species to ecosystem and researchers related population abundances to weather and snowpack dynamics, and what possible action needed to the increasing rate of pika survival.
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A changing climate is a particular concern for plants and animals restricted to montane areas and local moist pockets, causing disruptions up and down the food chain because these communities cannot move when conditions become warmer and drier. Changing climate leads to high predicted rates of extinction in animals and plants from some local regions (Thomas et al. 2004). American Pikas are small herbivores, round, egg-shaped body, round ears, short limbs, and an extremely short tail. To live through the alpine winter, they do not hibernate, instead, use their furnace-like metabolism and a coat of fur to stay warm during winters under the snow. The pikas gather forbs, sedges, shrub twigs, moss, and lichen, grasses mostly, to store for the winter. These small lagomorphs live in the cold, thermoregulate poorly, have high resting and low lethal body temperatures, and show minimal physiological resilience to temperature extremes and chronic stress. Pikas cannot survive when temperatures above 77°F for longer than six hours. The danger for pikas might lie mostly with increasing temperatures and extreme heat of summer. In some cases, in the region of the Himalayas and West Europe, however, decreased snowpack and lower air moisture may threaten pikas more.
Aaron N. Johnston and the team of researchers of the U.S. Geological Survey published recently in Ecological Society of America’s journal Ecology sought to understand how climate change, specifical changes in snowpack and VPD, is affecting the survival of pikas. Johnston stated “We expected snowpack to be an important factor because it has many important ecological functions for pikas,” said Johnston. “The effect of VPD in winter was a big surprise.” VPD directly correlates to plant transpiration rates. Higher VPD effect on the growth of plants, pika depends on these plants for food. Snowpacks will shrink which they use for insulation against warm temperature. The snowpack also stores water for forage plants that pikas eat after winter. This study included a low snowpack with high VPD in the winter of 2014-2015, this observation provided valuable information about how these variables are influencing on the ecosystem. Further, the researchers have studied the dynamics across differing elevations – low, middle, and high. The results at different elevations were surprisingly variable, with different dynamics.
At the lowest elevations, high VPD during the snow drought dried up a plant, and lack of food may have prompted populations declined markedly. At middle elevations, pika populations lacked a strong snowpack in which to seek shelter and insulation from the extreme cold. At high elevations, where snow persists for up to an extended period, forage came back into play as the critical driver of abundances. Populations having had sufficient snow cover for insulation and increased the availability of forage helps to increase populations due to earlier snowmelt and a more extended growing season for food.
“Mount Rose and Desolation Wilderness are still great places to see pikas,” Stewart said. However, this scenario will not exist more; the above study forecasts suitable climate conditions for pikas will decline up to 97 percent by 2050. It is just devastating that hikers and backpackers go back to these places without exploring animal and plant life. We are creating a lonelier planet by extinguishing these creatures. Shaye Wolf, climate science director for the center of Biological Diversity, says this new study illustrates an “alarming pattern” for pikas, “The Fish and Wildlife Service has yet again opted to ignore and downplay these findings and deny listing to one of the posters children for climate change.”
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Climate-indicator species like pikas provide many ecosystem services and play an important role in biodiversity. Pikas serve as a food source for some predators like eagles or foxes, weasels, coyotes, and birds of prey. Pikas are also engineers of the ecosystem, foraging of pikas helps to promote the biodiversity and how various plant species and nutrients distributed in the environment. Consequently, extinction of pika could have many lasting dire consequences for the environment and serve as a forerunner in forecasting potential climate change impacts on animal and plant life across the greater world. Many small mammal species like pikas are helping to study biostratigraphy and evolutionary trends of the mammal community. Pikas have the lethal threshold for heat stress, facilitating to explore changes in the community structure of small mammals under the influence of significant changes in climate. It remains unexplored mainly that how extreme events like snow drought and many and their interactions with VPD, decreased evaporative cooling and near-surface humidity will affect other animal species. Survival of endangered species like Pikas, a mountain-dwelling indicator is critically essential in unexplored areas of the ecosystem.
The American pika is not only one species threatened by a changing climate, but many others are such as salmon, wolverines, tigers, walruses, coral reefs, elephants, as other examples of iconic species vulnerable to climate change. According to 2015 meta-analysis published in Science, one in six species could be vulnerable to extinction from climate change this century. We still have times to prevent the worst impacts of climate change. According to Ines Kagubare, “the emissions gap is widening as the window to take action narrows.” We are feeding this phenomenon instead of extinguishing it within reach; Our leaders need to take bold action now to reduce the gap between what we are today and where we need to be. If a species is granted protections under the Endangered Species Act, the government is legally obligated to protect it as they are as plays an essential role in the ecosystem. That is relatively straightforward when the threat is from building condo complexes or the use of a specific pesticide. However, in the example of climate change-driven extinction, the problem is the entire global energy and industrial complex and unprecedented growth in population. Addressing it would take sweeping regulations on planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions.
- Aaron, N. J., Jason, E. B., Aidan, B., Erik, A. B., Christophersen, R., Ransom, J. I., (2019). Ecological consequences of anomalies in atmospheric moisture and snowpack. Ecology.
- Ecological Society of America. (2019, February 4). Pika survival rates dry up with low moisture: In the Pacific Northwest, dry air interacts with low snow conditions to affect pika abundances at different elevations. ScienceDaily. Retrieved from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/02/190204124211.html
- Constance I. Millar, Diane L. Delany, Kimberly A. Hersey, Mackenzie R. Jeffress, Andrew T. Smith, K. Jane Van Gunst & Robert D. Westfall (2018) Distribution, climatic relationships, and status of American pikas (Ochotona princeps) in the Great Basin, USA, Arctic, Antarctic, and Alpine Research, 50:1.
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- American Pikas Tolerate Climate Change Better Than Expected. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://phys.org/news/2018-04-american-pikas-tolerate-climate.html
- Adorable American Pika Is Fast Disappearing, And We’re… (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/american-pika-protection-climate-change_us_
- American Pika Disappears From Large Area Of California’s… (n.d.). Retrieved from https://news.ucsc.edu/2017/08/pika-extinction.html
- Pika Survival Rates Dry Up With Low Moisture: In The… (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/02/190204124211.html
- Building Evolutionary Resilience For Conserving… (n.d.). Retrieved from https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/j.1752-4571.2010.00157.x
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