Date of Award
MS in Biological Sciences
An increasing amount of evidence suggests that as temperatures increase, montane animals are moving upward in elevation (IPCC 2007, Parmesan and Yohe 2003). As suitable habitats rise in elevation and then disappear altogether, these animals could be pushed to extinction. The American pika, Ochotona princeps, is a montane mammal that lives in western North America, usually at elevations above 1500 m (Smith and Weston 1990). Recent evidence suggests that pika population numbers are dropping in response to rising temperatures (Beever et al. 2010). The pika is a small herbivorous lagomorph, a relative of hares and rabbits. Its habitat is tightly restricted to talus slopes (rockfields) and the surrounding vegetation (Grayson 2005). Pikas have a high tolerance for cold temperatures, and do not hibernate during the long montane winter. However, they have very little tolerance for even mildly warm temperatures, and have been found to die when confined above ground at 25.5˚ C (Smith 1974b).
To better understand pika persistence, we resurveyed 17 historic pika sites in the Lassen Peak region of northern California in August and September, 2009. Six of the historic sites were abandoned, as well as an additional 11 of 17 new sites surveyed. At each site we collected habitat information, and analyzed the data for factors that were correlated with site occupancy. We also installed 38 iButton thermal dataloggers in abandoned and occupied pika use sites, to determine if temperature affects occupancy. The dataloggers remained in pika sites for 14 months and recorded temperature every 1.5 hours. Abandoned pika sites had higher average temperatures and more days below 0˚ C. They also had greater shrub cover, less forb and graminoid cover, and a greater percentage of litter substrate. These findings suggest that the current warming trend may be having a negative impact on pikas in the Lassen Peak Region. As temperatures rise, pikas may be declining due to unsuitable temperatures and altered vegetative communities.
In addition to the Lassen surveys, I investigated pika behavior in different temperature regimes in the Sierra Nevada. If pikas are able to adapt to climate change, it is possible that populations of pikas in different temperature regimes may exhibit behavioral plasticity, or have evolved genetic differences, such that these populations have different daily activity schedules. To determine if there is a difference in pika behavior at different elevations I observed pikas in one low and one high elevation site within the Bishop Creek drainage system in the Sierra Nevada. I conducted behavioral observations of pikas in four time blocks throughout the day in August and September, 2010. I recorded specific behaviors, such as foraging and haying (vegetation collecting), and compared these activities between low and high elevation pikas at different times of day. In August, pikas in the low elevation site exhibited a different activity profile than those in the high elevation site. Low elevation pikas were significantly more crepuscular (most active at dawn and dusk) during this month. I also observed more foraging behavior in the high elevation than the low elevation site, in both August and September. Reduced activity at higher temperatures may have negative impacts on pikas as temperatures increase. Low elevation pikas may be stressed due to reduced time spent foraging and haypile (overwinter vegetation cache) gathering. However, if pikas were able to switch their activity schedules to a more nocturnal schedule, they could escape higher daytime temperatures. To detect the possibility of nocturnal behavior in low elevation pikas, I set up four infra-red remote cameras in the low elevation site. I had variable success in capturing pika behavior with the cameras, and detected no evidence of nocturnal behavior. More research on the possibility of nocturnal behavior in pikas would be worthwhile, in part to determine what chance, if any, pikas have of adapting to rising global temperatures.
Available for download on Monday, May 26, 2014