American pika extinction rates have increased nearly five-fold over the past ten years as a result of global climate change, according to a new study published in Global Change Biology.
Analysing data on pika distribution across 110 years, as well as 62 years of data on regional climate, the study’s authors demonstrated that the American pika’s distribution throughout the Great Basin is changing at an increasingly rapid rate.
Retreating to higher altitudes
The American pika (Ochotona princeps), a small, hamster-like animal of the rabbit family, commonly occurs on rocky slopes and lava flows throughout the western U.S. This endearing mammal is well-adapted to cold climates, with dense, silky fur. However, it is acutely sensitive to changes in the climate, and if pikas are unable to seek shelter, hot temperatures can lead to mortality.
The researchers found that movement up to higher altitudes by pika populations had increased by 11-fold in the past decade, with their range having moved up an average of 145 metres, equal to the height of the Great Pyramid of Giza, Egypt’s tallest pyramid. During the 20th Century the American pika’s range moved up about 13 metres per decade.
After examining pika population extinctions over the past 110 years, it has become clear that nearly half of extinction events in the Great Basin have occurred since 1999.
Climate change indicator species
Climate change appears to be the only major threat to the American pika’s survival, as it is not experiencing significant habitat loss or degradation and it is not hunted. This allows researchers a unique view of how the changing climate is impacting the world’s wildlife. The American pika may also act as an ‘early warning’ indicator of how species’ distributions may change in the future in response to climate change.
In view of this recent research, the status of the American pika may have to be reassessed; the U.S. government recently denied listing the species as Endangered on the Endangered Species List, despite the threat of climate change.
Learn more about the American pika on ARKive.
Find out more about climate change on ARKive’s new climate change pages.
Read the full study at Global Change Biology.
Alex Royan, ARKive Species Text Author