The Front Range Pika Project – Why Pikas? – Part 1

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Hundreds of projects all over the world use the CitSci.org platform to build and grow their citizen science projects. Citizen science is the process of engaging the public in science research. Citizen science projects most commonly form around scientific questions that cannot be answered by scientists alone.

In our Project Spotlight series, you’ll meet the people behind the projects and hear about their citizen science successes and challenges. We hope you’ll take away new ideas you can try with your citizen science projects too!

Megan Mueller
Senior Conservation Biologist

Meet Megan Mueller, Senior Conservation Biologist with Rocky Mountain Wild. Megan focuses on finding innovative, science-based solutions to conservation challenges that face wildlife in the west. And that includes giving people an opportunity to contribute to research efforts through Rocky Mountain Wild’s citizen science programs. Here she talks with us about the Front Range Pika Project (FRPP).

Q: First things first. What IS an American pika?

American pikas are small mammals, most closely related to rabbits. They’re slightly bigger than a hamster but smaller than a guinea pig, and really cute. They are often found in alpine environments and generally don’t do well when temperatures get really warm, especially if they can’t find places to cool off.

Q: Why are scientists interested in pikas?

Researchers observed pika populations disappearing from historically occupied habitat in the Great Basin and the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Very little was known about the status of pika populations across most of their range (western North America and the western margin of Canada). Early studies suggested the most likely explanation for pikas disappearing was due to changes in temperature as a result of climate change.

Q. And that’s why the Front Range Pika Project formed?

The Front Range Pika Project formed in 2010 to harness the power of citizen scientists to conduct long-term monitoring of pika populations across a large geographic area. Researchers need baseline information on where pikas are across their range. The challenge is that pika habitat is typically difficult and time consuming to access and researchers have limited time and funding to monitor them. Citizen scientists are contributing to a larger effort to find out if American pikas are at risk of decline or extinction due to climate change. 

Q: What makes pikas so vulnerable to climate change?

Pika in snow
Photo: Mike Molloy

Pikas don’t hibernate in the winter like bears. Instead, they have a high metabolism and high resting body temperature that helps them keep warm in freezing temperatures in the mountains in winter. Pikas need deep snowpack to insulate the rocky talus slopes where they live and help them survive below-freezing winter temperatures.

During warmer months, pikas collect as much vegetation as they can and store it in “hay piles” so they have food during the winter. Interestingly, the same features that keep them warm in the winter also make them vulnerable to overheating in summer. Pikas behaviorally regulate their body temperature in the summer by spending time in cool microclimates under piles of talus. If temperatures get too high in the summer, it increases the amount of time pikas have to spend cooling off and might reduce their ability to forage for enough vegetation to store to survive winter.

High temperatures could limit the ability of juvenile pikas to leave the talus patches they were born in and travel to unoccupied talus patches to establish their own territories. Climate change could also increase summer temperatures, lead to earlier melt of the snowpack, and make pikas vulnerable to overheating in summer and freezing in winter. 

Q: What scientific question(s) is FRPP setting out to answer?

Right now, we’re focused on monitoring pika populations at historically occupied sites in Colorado’s Front Range, to determine whether population losses are occurring in this region. If they are, we want to figure out if those losses are linked to climate change. 

Q: Who are the partners involved in the project?

The project is co-directed by Rocky Mountain Wild and Denver Zoo, in partnership with CitSci.org and researchers at Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the University of Colorado, Warren Wilson College, Colorado Mesa University, and the Natural Resources Ecology Lab at Colorado State University. We’re expanding the partnership this year, adding several new partners. And of course, there are the citizen scientists. We wouldn’t be able to do any of this work without them!

Q: Tell us a little bit about the volunteer experience with FRPP. What does a “day in the life” of a pika volunteer look like?

Pika training in the San Juan Mountains
Photo: Front Range Pika Project Training, San Juan Mountains

After attending classroom and field trainings to learn about pika ecology, climate change and data collection methods, volunteers select at least one field site where they conduct surveys for American pikas with a friend, family member or another pika volunteer.

Volunteers get up early, drive to a trailhead and hike to a field site. The sites are in beautiful locations in the mountains. Volunteers use maps and GPS units to hike to field sites and navigate to specific coordinates where they do their surveys.

While there are some easy hikes, many sites require long hikes over difficult terrain and some require off-trail navigation. Some volunteers enjoy an easy hike to a beautiful spot, while others love the adventure of navigating to remote locations few people ever visit. Once volunteers find the location, they conduct their survey by looking for pikas, listening for pika calls and looking for fresh hay piles. They also measure a variety of habitat and climate variables, document other species that are present (particularly marmots), and collect pika scat.

Pikas are easy to spot and observe once you know where to look. Our volunteers really enjoy watching them. Even when they’re not officially surveying for pikas, volunteers document pikas they see while out recreating in other locations. Our volunteers like learning about pikas and climate change, and contributing to scientific research and conservation. They also like hiking in the mountains!
 

Check out Part II of the blog next week to learn about the science emerging from the work of the Front Range Pika Project!

Cover Photo: Bob Zaparanik

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