By Hilary Smith, Sustainability Resource Center
Pikas, Ochotona princeps, are adorable critters. Only seven to eight inches in length, and weighing in at barely a third of a pound, the average pika could fit comfortably in the palm of your hand.
Though they look like rodents, pikas are actually more closely related to rabbits and hares. Their current North American range spans south from British Columbia to New Mexico and west to California, and they are well-adapted to the cooler climes of their preferred high-elevation habitats: rocky talus slopes, usually well above the tree line. This sensitivity to high temperatures makes pikas an excellent indicator species for the effects of climate change.
But a particular population of pikas living near Portland, Ore., has bucked that trend. It has been thriving at much warmer, lower elevations, in a temperate rainforest near sea level.
U of U PhD candidate Johanna Varner has been studying these and other extreme-habitat pika populations, attempting to discern their unique adaptations and survivalist strategies.
Varner, who plans to defend her thesis in April, arrived in the world of wildlife biology via a path she describes as “circuitous.” She grew up here in Utah, but went east for college, earning her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in molecular biology and bioengineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She spent more and more time working in labs, but walls could not contain her for very long. She wandered and adventured for a while, including a stint picking fruit in New Zealand, then came back to Salt Lake City.
In 2008, she read about U of U biology professor Denise Dearing‘s former work with pikas—animals Varner says she has always loved. Dearing’s work was revelatory: Varner was shocked and excited to discover that a person could get paid to do science in the field, hiking and camping in wild and beautiful places, far away from the confines of a lab. She wrote Dearing what she describes as a “fan letter,” which led to a job in a lab at the U, and eventually to her current PhD program studying pika populations.
One of Varner’s surprising discoveries was a dramatic shift in the pikas’ diet at lower elevations. In their normal habitats, pikas are generalist herbivores, feasting on a variety of grasses and wildflowers. At lower elevations, however, their diet narrows, and two species of moss comprise more than 50 percent of what they consume. Because moss is not a very nutritive food, they need to eat large amounts of it, says Varner.
The moss becomes slightly more energy-rich through a natural part of the pika’s digestive process, called copraphagy. After a first round of digestion, a pika produces soft pellets of partially-digested plant material, which it then eats and digests for a second time. Because of the efficiency of the pika’s gut microbes in breaking down the plant fiber, the caecal pellets offer about six times the nutrition of the original greens, says Varner.
In addition to being a food source, moss likely acts as a micro-climate regulator, bringing down temperatures to a tolerable level via evaporative cooling.
Varner has also been tracking higher-elevation pikas on Mount Hood. A massive wildfire tore through her study sites there in 2011—but rather than rue the loss, Varner used the fires as a jumping-off point for studying whether, and to what degree, pikas might return to the burned-over rocks. As it turned out, pikas moved back to the sites rather quickly, and Varner was able to quantify the minimum vegetation thresholds required for recolonization.
It was Varner’s excitement about her own time spent studying pikas in the mountain wild that led her to add another, more participatory side-project to her dissertation work. Over the past few years, she has been taking groups of middle schoolers into the mountains to study pikas in their natural habitats.
Varner’s first such project was with the Salt Lake Center for Science Education, a local science-focused middle and high school. She has been teaching students there how to conduct authentic field research, monitoring pikas in the Uintas. She has done similar work with eighth graders from Salem, Oregon’s Jane Goodall Environmental Middle School. Varner’s work with students has earned her the nickname “Pika Jo.”
Varner says it’s been well worth the effort. The students have provided her with a fresh perspective, and some creative and actionable research questions. Perhaps more importantly, their experience with pikas has sparked a sense of wonder and a re-connection to their natural environments.
That sense of wonder is of fundamental importance to the sustainability movement; without an emotional connection to plants, animals, and other ecosystem elements, it is unlikely a person will act to defend them.
Rachel Carson wrote that young people should be instilled with “a sense of wonder so indestructible that it will last throughout life, as an unfailing antidote against the boredom and disenchantments of later years, the sterile preoccupation with things that are artificial, the alienation from the sources of our strength.”
Varner says she has loved her time in the field, studying pikas in both Oregon and Utah. She’s been inspired both by the work itself and her time with the young students. “I didn’t think I’d like working with middle schoolers as much as I do,” she said.
Hilary Smith is a graduate assistant in the Sustainability Resource Center and a graduate student in environmental humanities. Research spotlight is an occasional feature on SustainableUtah. Please send ideas for future research spotlights to firstname.lastname@example.org.