A furry mountain rodent, known as the American pika, has disappeared from a large stretch of habitat in North Lake Tahoe, the largest pika die-off in the modern age, according to UC Santa Cruz scientists.
A study published in PLOS One in August outlines the findings of a six-year, and ultimately unsuccessful, search for the high-elevation rodents in a 165-square-mile area of the Sierra Nevada. Lake Tahoe, the Truckee River and Californai Highway 267 bound this roughly triangular zone surrounding Mount Pluto.
The research team, led by biologist Joseph Stewart, began monitoring the area when the pika was petitioned for listing under the California and federal endangered species acts.
“When we found old pika poop in every talus field that we looked at along the Truckee River, which is super low elevation, we started scratching our heads. If there is old pika poop here, where did the pikas go? Are they at higher elevations?” Stewart said. “The next six years we surveyed at progressively higher and higher elevations until we realized that, oh my god, pikas are extinct from this whole huge area.”
The pika is a hamster-sized relative of the rabbit, which has adapted to surviving in cold, snowy winters. During the summer months they move between rocky fields and meadows, stocking their dens with grass and other plants.
“There are thermal physiological studies that show their upper critical limit is only 3 degrees celsius above their resting body temperature. So, they are very well adapted to surviving under the snow in the wintertime. Unlike otaher species at high elevations, like marmots and other species that live in their environment, pikas don’t hibernate,”…
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