Can a diet change help pikas survive global warming?

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Pika habitat is threatened by global warming. Kim Fenske photo.

Researchers carefully document eating habits of unusual low-elevation pika population in Oregon

By Summit Voice

FRISCO — They’re cute and fuzzy and threatened by global warming, but it turns out that at least some pikas may be able to survive a warmer world by changing their diet.

“Our work shows pikas can eat unusual foods like moss to persist in strange environments,” University of Utah biology professor Denise Dearing said after studying pikas living in rockslides near sea level in Oregon — at much lower elevations than most other pikas. “It suggests that they may be more resistant to climate change than we thought,” she said.

The Oregon pikas eat moss growing in shady spots, which keeps them from having to venture out into hot sunlight and away from predators like weasels and hawks.

“By consuming mosses that grow on the rockslides where they live, the pikas are released from foraging outside the safety and shady heat buffer of the rocks,” where they can overheat or be killed by weasels and hawks, said  iology doctoral student Jo Varner. “Few herbivores consume moss because it’s so nutritionally deficient. The pikas in our study actually set a new record for moss in a mammal’s diet: 60 percent.”

Varner said the findings suggest that preserving moss-covered rock landscapes may be important for pika conservation.

Pikas are native to cold, alpine climates — often above 8,200 feet elevation — in North America, Asia and Eastern Europe. Although a few species dig burrows, they usually live in rocky areas and crevices near meadows or in talus slopes. Some wildlife biologists see them as a bellwether species for climate change impacts.

They don’t hibernate, but collect and carry vegetation – often grasses, flowers, fir needles and herbaceous forbs such as lupine, alumroot and yarrow – to their homes to make “haypiles” for winter use.

In parts of the West – including the Great Basin of Nevada and Oregon and, to a lesser extent, Colorado – pikas have gone extinct in some mountain ranges and moved to higher elevations in others.

The research was funded by the National Science Foundation, University of Utah, the Wilderness Society, Southwestern Association of Naturalists, Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology, and American Society of Mammalogists. It was published online in the February 2014 issue of Journal of Mammalogy.

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