What if Pikachu were real? They are—kind of. The real things are called pikas. They’re brown (not yellow), say “eeep” instead of “pikachu” and don’t have lightening bolt tails. But they’re still pretty darn cute.
American pikas are found in the mountains of California, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming. These adorable rabbit-relatives usually live in boulder fields (called ‘talus’) above the treeline. Here, they hop, eeep and eat—and eat and eat, filling their stomachs nine times per day.
When pikas aren’t eating, they’re gathering food for the winter. (They don’t hibernate like bears do.) During the summer, they make as many as 13 foraging trips per hour. The little guys weigh only 1/3 of a pound, but they need to collect at least 60 pounds of grass, flowers and other plants for their winter stashes, called “haypiles,” that serve double-duty as warm bedding and munchies to help the pikas make it through the winter.
Winter presents two problems for most animals—lack of food and cold—but pikas have this whole winter thing figured out. To make sure their haypiles are still edible in late winter, pikas collect toxic plants. The plant’s toxicity serves as a preservative, but the toxicity decreases with time so that it’s actually edible and fresh at the end of winter. To stay warm, pikas take advantage of the insulating properties of the snowpack and snuggle into their 60-pound haypiles. Plus, these guys are built for cold with their thick coat and ability to roll up in a ball like a popple. (A popple, for those who missed it, was an ‘80s icon.)
Being able to withstand the cold seems like a pretty good adaptation for a critter that lives in a cold environment. And it is—unless that environment gets warmer…which would be a totally preposterous idea if it weren’t for something called global climate change.
Scientists expect summer temperatures in the western U.S. to increase by more than 10.3°F in the next century with more frequent and longer heat waves. Plus, they say, high elevations may get even warmer. For pikas, this could be problematic.
In the summer, pikas are out and about during the day, but when temperatures top 80°F, they hide in the cool shade of the talus. Why so wimpy? The uber insulating fur that keeps pikas warm in winter does not keep them cool in summer. In fact, a pika will overheat if its body temperature increases by just 5.4°F. A pika’s average body temperature is 104.2°F, but a body temperature of 109.6°F is lethal. (For reference, normal body temperature for humans is 98.6°F, but a temperature above 107.6°F can cause brain damage.)
While death by overheating is pretty scary, it’s not the only problem pikas will face in a warmer environment. Pikas tend to avoid foraging in hot weather (because it will likely kill them) so scientists fear that consistent high temperatures will prevent pikas from foraging. If they don’t forage, they won’t get the nutrients they need to survive and the food they need to sustain them through the winter. Of course, warmer weather may also change the composition of the plants that grow in the alpine meadows surrounding pika habitat. These plants may not provide the nutrients pikas need—or they might be yucky.
Then there’s winter. Normally, pikas’ habitats are marked by permafrost and snow. The permafrost maintains the talus habitat and the snowpack provides an insulating layer to keep the pika warm. Without talus, pikas wouldn’t have a place to stay warm in winter, cool in summer or safe from predators. And without the snowpack, pikas might die of hypothermia. (Ironic, eh?)
Some pika populations in the Great Basin have already disappeared. Other pikas have moved an average of 900 feet upslope. Still others are trapped on isolated mountaintops—to get to another mountaintop would require going through a hot (and therefore deadly) valley.
The bottom line: Eeep! In other words, pikas are screwed. And that’s why the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering them for protection under the Endangered Species Act. If the American pika is listed, it will be the second animal to be listed because of climate change. (Polar bears were listed as threatened last spring.)