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They are best known as the inspiration for the hugely popular Pikachu character in the Pokemon games, but the real-life American Pika has been wiped out in one part of the US, it has been revealed.
The species of tiny mammals known to frequent the Sierra Nevadas carrying ‘bouquets’ of wildflowers in their mouths have now been wiped out across a massive expanse of their habitat.
The American pika has adapted to survive the harsh conditions of mountain life, from high altitudes to cold temperatures, but now, experts say climate change is driving their collapse.
The American pika has adapted to survive the harsh conditions of mountain life, from high altitudes to cold temperatures, but now, experts say climate change is driving their collapse. A six-year study found the pika is now extinct across a 64-sq-mile patch of the Sierra Nevadas
THE AMERICAN PIKA
The American pika is a small mammal related to rabbits and hares known for its big, round ears, and tendency to feed on wildflowers.
It’s said the Pokémon character Pikachu is based on the real animal.
‘The classic image of a pika is one hopping from rock to rock with a little ‘bouquet’ of wildflowers in its mouth,’ said co-author David Wright, recently retired from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.
They can be found in the mountains of western North America, from British Columbia and Alberta, to Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, California and New Mexico.
The pika has adapted to survive the harsh conditions of mountain life, from high altitudes to cold temperatures, but now, experts say climate change is driving their collapse.
They hibernate – instead, they use a ‘furnace-like’ metabolism and thick coat of fur to stay warm during the cold, snowy months.
‘A larger haypile acts as insurance policy against winter starvation,’ said Stewart.
‘But the same adaptations that allow them to stay warm during winter make them vulnerable to overheating in the summer, and when summer temperatures are too hot, they can’t gather enough food to survive and reproduce.’
‘The loss of pikas from this large area of otherwise suitable habitat echoes prehistoric range collapses that happened when temperatures increased after the last ice age,’ said lead author Joseph Stewart, a PhD candidate at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
‘This time, however, we’re seeing the effects of climate change unfold on a scale of decades as opposed to millennia.’
In the study, the team surveyed pika habitat throughout the north Lake Tahoe area from 2011 to 2016, searching for evidence of their activity and even camping out to listen for their distinctive calls.
But, all they found were old pika fecal pellets buried in the sediment.
‘The animals themselves were conspicuously absent,’ Stewart said.
These creatures, relatives of rabbits and hares, have distinct droppings that look like peppercorns, and the researchers say it ‘doesn’t resemble feces from any other species in the area.’
Due to the environmental conditions, it can remain in a given area for a long time.
So, the researchers used radiocarbon dating to track the timeline of their decline based on the scat.
‘Above-ground nuclear arms testing, from before the 1963 Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, resulted in an elevated concentration of radiocarbon in the atmosphere, and we used this signal to determine an age range for the relict pika scat,’ said study co-author Katherine Heckman, a radiocarbon scientist with the U.S. Forest Service.
This revealed that the pikas likely persisted in the area as recently as 1991, after disappearing from lower elevation sites around Mount Pluto before 1955.
‘The pattern is exactly what we expect with climate change,’ Stewart said.
The American pika is a small mammal related to rabbits and hares known for its big, round ears, and tendency to feed on wildflowers. It’s said the Pokémon character Pikachu (right) is based on the real animal
‘As the hottest, lowest-elevation sites became too hot for pikas, they became restricted to just the mountain top, and then the mountain top became too hot as well.’
According to the species, the 64-square-mile local extinction creates a huge gap in their distribution north of Lake Tahoe.
And, this could signal the complete loss of population and genetic connectivity between the two groups.
A species of tiny mammals known to frolic the Sierra Nevadas carrying ‘bouquets’ of wildflowers in their mouths have now been wiped out across a massive expanse of their habitat
The pika is just one of many species now at risk as a result of climate change.
Even with certain actions, such as habitat protection, restoration, and assisted migration, their chances may still be grim.
According to the team, the creatures can still be seen in the surrounding area, including Mount Rose and Desolation Wilderness.
‘Our hope is that simply getting the word out there that climate change is causing iconic wildlife to disappear will get people talking and contribute toward political will to reign in and reverse climate change,’ said Stewart.
‘There’s still time to prevent the worst impacts of climate change. We need our leaders to take bold action now.’
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