As the winter wraps up, I cannot help but reflect on a small and charismatic critter that lives in our greater watershed: the American Pika. Like me, the Ochotona princeps, greatly benefits from snowy winters. These miniscule, herbivorous lagomorphs (or relatives of rabbits and hares) live in high elevations, using the snow to insulate their burrowed homes above the treeline in the alpine habitat.
As an avid skier and snow enthusiast, I have been thrilled this winter; packing up my car every weekend I can to spend time among the tall, majestic peaks of the Sierra Nevadas. Our watershed truly is incredible in that during a single weekend, a Bay Area resident can visit a wild beach, hike among the redwoods, and just a few hours later find themselves taking turns through fresh powder. Our local East Bay watershed is very much connected to the Sierras, as approximately 40% of California’s water drains through the Bay, much of it descending down from the mountains through major rivers, streams, and creeks. These snowy peaks are crucial habitat for pikas.
Pikas are difficult to spot, as they prefer to live in talus fields, hiding among rocks and boulders and blending in with their grey coats. Their distinctly round, large ears help them cool down during the summers. During the summer time, when hiking in the alpine, you can often hear pikas exclaim their famous high-pitched “meeeep” squeal. Often, they make this sound to warn one another of their predators such as eagles, hawks, coyotes, bobcats, foxes, and weasels. They are busy in the summer collecting various grasses to prepare their dens with food and shelter for the winter, where they spend the cold winter.
Pikas require cold temperatures to survive, and with rising climate change, they have become a famous indicator species of the changing climate. Pikas have been moving up in elevation in response to temperature changes. In 2010, the National Park Service responded to this phenomenon with the Pikas in Peril project, a research endeavor to study how the Pikas have been dealing with the changing temperatures. Researchers have concluded that what is crucial for Pikas to survive is connectivity between suitable habitats. As long as they can move from one cold and icy patch to another, they may be able to adapt.
With their adorable, charismatic faces, Pikas have become a symbol of all of the species that must be protected in our greater watershed. Let’s hope that for their sake (and mine) that we continue to have snowy and cold winters in the Sierras!