Menus Subscribe Search
pika

A University of Utah study found the pikas, which normally live at much higher elevations and are threatened by climate change, survive at nearly sea level in Oregon by eating more moss than any other known wild mammal. (PHOTO: MALLORY LAMBERT/UNIVERSITY OF UTAH)

What an Unbelievably Cute Ball of Fur Can Teach Us About Climate Change

• December 18, 2013 • 3:47 PM

A University of Utah study found the pikas, which normally live at much higher elevations and are threatened by climate change, survive at nearly sea level in Oregon by eating more moss than any other known wild mammal. (PHOTO: MALLORY LAMBERT/UNIVERSITY OF UTAH)

It’s an unpalatable truth, but since we’re already late in attacking climate change we better learn how to adapt.

Regardless of carbon taxes and reforestation initiatives and geoengineering, the climate has already changed and will continue to warm for the foreseeable future. So while we humans work up the intestinal fortitude to perhaps reduce our role in that warming, many other planetary inhabitants have had to adapt or die.

In a story in the current issue of Pacific Standard’s print edition, Melinda Burns outlines the strategy of one mountain denizen, Belding’s ground squirrel. The squirrels like it cool and dry in California’s Eastern Sierra, but climate change has made it warm—well, warmer—and wetter. Like many animals, they’ve moved up when they can’t move out to greener pastures, but they’ve also found an unlikely strategy of making do in man-made locations—including the ghost town-cum-tourist attraction of Bodie—at elevations where they can’t thrive in natural habitats. “There are three times as many squirrels in man-made locations,” Burns wrote, “as in the high-elevation Sierran meadows where they still survive in nature.”

Pika amid moss

A pika sits among rocks and moss on a rockslide in Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge. Researchers nicknamed this pika Tyson because part of an ear was bitten off. (PHOTO: JO VARNER/UNIVERSITY OF UTAH)

Now comes word that one of the squirrel’s mountain neighbors, the pika, has found its own unique adaptation to climate change (in an area where it hasn’t already gone extinct, that is).  It eats moss, lots of moss. And then more moss—moss made up 60 percent of the pikas’ diet in the Oregon study area of the Columbia River Gorge. If that wasn’t enough, the pika then re-eats after the moss has gone through the critter’s digestive track and come out as edible poop pellets known as caecal, which the pikas re-ingest in a process that concentrates the negligible nutrition originally present in moss.

There’s a reason few animals besides reindeer, lemmings, and feral Hebridean sheep routinely eat moss, biologist Jo Varner explains in a release from the University of Utah: “Some fiber is good, but this is almost all fiber. Mosses are 80 percent fiber. It’s a bit like eating paper.” Varner was the lead author with M. Denise Dearing of a new paper on the pikas’ dietary plasticity appearing in the Journal of Mammology.

In case you didn’t do a high school biology report on lagomophs like I did, eating their own poop—it’s known as coprophagy—is not some new behavior for pikas, rabbits, and their kin. What’s new is the feedstock for the pikas’ poop, the mass quantities of moss. After a few spins in the digestive cycle, the recycled pellets can be six times as nutritious as the plain moss.

Normally, a pika would forage around and collect a pile of vegetation to dine on during the winter when provender grows scarce. These haypiles can hold as much as 60 pounds in the Rockies, although the low-elevation Oregon pikas only store about 10 pounds for their milder winter. But by eating moss, which grows in the shadier part of the heaps of rock where the pikas live, the animals don’t have to head out into predator-filled open land and can stay in the shade. The latter matters a lot, because pikas are basically fur-covered six-inch balls optimized to be as warm as possible at all times. Two hours at 78 degrees, the researchers note, is all it takes to do in a pika—which suggests they might literally be killing themselves in the summer at those higher elevations as they struggle to gather those 60 pounds of supplies.

Something else to know—using moss as a wall covering is cool. Literally. These lowland rockpiles with 40 to 80 percent moss covering are up to 27 degrees Fahrenheit less than mossy surroundings or prime pika habitat higher up. “Taken together,” Varner and Dearing write, “these results suggest that CRG pika populations may actually be better protected from heat stress caused by climate change than their counterparts living in the high mountains, who are obligated to construct substantial haypiles during the warmest parts of the summer.” (The researchers don’t claim that what’s true for these Mt. Hood-area pikas is automatically true for pikas everywhere.)

Besides a fascinating digression on varmint dietary habits, why do we care about pikas and their mossy poop? Besides being pretty charismatic—LOLpikas anyone?—the creatures have long been cited as a sort of canary in the coal mine species, or in this case a mammal in the lava field, for climate change in the Western U.S. In an important 1992 paper, the University of New Mexico’s Kelly MacDonald and James Brown predicted pikas would be among the first to go extinct as rising temperatures swamped their “habitat islands.”

A February report from California’s Department of Fish and Wildlife that recommended against declaring the state’s pikas as endangered took a different view.

However, as a widely-distributed and relatively abundant species with the ability to change behavior to accommodate changes in the environment, the American pika may not be impacted to the degree some models would predict, and the species has weathered historical periods of abrupt global climate warming (increases of as much as 10° C over periods of three to 40 years) in the past.

Rather than take this as an incitement to pump more greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, this tells us that despite the inevitability of near-term warming, it’s better—if possible—to adapt than to despair, even if adaption can be unpalatable. But maybe when we’re all metaphorically munching on moss, we as a species will finally get serious about mitigation.

Michael Todd
Most of Michael Todd's career has been spent in newspaper journalism, ranging from papers in the Marshall Islands to tiny California farming communities. Before joining the publishing arm of the Miller-McCune Center, he was managing editor of the national magazine Hispanic Business.

More From Michael Todd

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

July 28 • 2:00 PM

Are Patient Privacy Laws Being Misused to Protect Medical Centers?

A 1996 law known as HIPAA has been cited to scold a mom taking a picture of her son in a hospital, to keep information away from police investigating a possible rape at a nursing home, and to threaten VA whistleblowers.


July 28 • 12:00 PM

Does Internet Addiction Excuse the Death of an Infant?

In Love Child, documentary filmmaker Valerie Veatch explores how virtual worlds encourage us to erase the boundary between digital and real, no matter the consequences.


July 28 • 11:11 AM

NASA Could Build Entire Spacecrafts in Space Using 3-D Printers

This year NASA will experiment with 3-D printing small objects in space. That could mark the beginning of a gravity-free manufacturing revolution.


July 28 • 10:00 AM

Hell Isn’t for Real

You may have seen pictures of the massive crater in Siberia. It unfortunately—or fortunately—does not lead to the netherworld.


July 28 • 8:00 AM

Why Isn’t Obama More Popular?

It takes a while for people to notice that things are going well, particularly when they’ve been bad for so long.


July 28 • 7:45 AM

The Most Popular Ways to Share Good and Bad Personal News

Researchers rank the popularity of all of the different methods we have for telling people about our lives, from Facebook to face-to-face.


July 28 • 6:00 AM

Hams Without Ends and Cats Tied to Trees: How We Create Traditions With Dubious Origins

Does it really matter if the reason for why you give money to newlyweds is based on a skewed version of a story your parents once told you?


July 28 • 4:00 AM

A Belief in ‘Oneness’ Is Equated With Pro-Environment Behavior

New research finds a link between concern for the environment and belief in the concept of universal interconnectedness.


July 25 • 4:00 PM

Flying Blind: The View From 30,000 Feet Puts Everything in Perspective

Next time you find yourself in an airplane, consider keeping your phone turned off and the window open.


July 25 • 2:00 PM

Trophy Scarves: Race, Gender, and the Woman-as-Prop Trope

Social inequality unapologetically laid bare.


July 25 • 1:51 PM

Confusing Population Change With Migration

A lot of population change is baked into a region from migration that happened decades ago.


July 25 • 1:37 PM

Do Not Tell Your Kids That Eating Vegetables Will Make Them Stronger

Instead, hand them over in silence. Or, market them as the most delicious snack known to mankind.



July 25 • 11:07 AM

The West’s Groundwater Is Being Sucked Dry

Scientists were stunned to discover just how much groundwater has been lost from beneath the Colorado River over the past 10 years.


July 25 • 10:00 AM

Shelf Help: New Book Reviews in 100 Words or Less

What you need to know about Bad Feminist, XL Love, and The Birth of Korean Cool.



July 25 • 8:00 AM

The Consequences of Curing Childhood Cancer

The majority of American children with cancer will be cured, but it may leave them unable to have children of their own. Should preserving fertility in cancer survivors be a research priority?


July 25 • 6:00 AM

Men Find Caring, Understanding Responses Sexy. Women, Not So Much

For women looking to attract a man, there are advantages to being a caring conversationalist. But new research finds it doesn’t work the other way around.


July 25 • 4:00 AM

Arizona’s Double-Talk on Execution and Torture

The state is certain that Joseph Wood’s death was totally constitutional. But they’re looking into it.


July 24 • 4:00 PM

Overweight Americans Have the Lowest Risk of Premature Death

Why do we use the term “normal weight” when talking about BMI? What’s presented as normal certainly isn’t the norm, and it may not even be what’s most healthy.


July 24 • 2:00 PM

California’s Lax Policing of the Fracking Industry Has Put the Drought-Stricken State in a Terrible Situation

The state’s drought has forced farmers to rely on groundwater, even as aquifers have been intentionally polluted due to exemptions for the oil industry.


July 24 • 12:00 PM

What’s in a Name? The Problem With Washington’s Football Team

A senior advisor to the National Congress of American Indians once threw an embarrassing themed party that involved headdresses. He regrets that costume now, but knows his experience is one many others can relate to.


July 24 • 11:00 AM

How Wildlife Declines Are Leading to Slavery and Terrorism

As wildlife numbers dwindle, wildlife crimes are rising—and that’s fueling a raft of heinous crimes committed against humans.


July 24 • 10:58 AM

How the Supremes Pick Their Cases—and Why Obamacare Is Safe for Now

The opponents of Obamacare who went one for two in circuit court rulings earlier this week are unlikely to see their cases reach the Supreme Court.



Follow us


Subscribe Now

NASA Could Build Entire Spacecrafts in Space Using 3-D Printers

This year NASA will experiment with 3-D printing small objects in space. That could mark the beginning of a gravity-free manufacturing revolution.

The Most Popular Ways to Share Good and Bad Personal News

Researchers rank the popularity of all of the different methods we have for telling people about our lives, from Facebook to face-to-face.

Do Not Tell Your Kids That Eating Vegetables Will Make Them Stronger

Instead, hand them over in silence. Or, market them as the most delicious snack known to mankind.

The West’s Groundwater Is Being Sucked Dry

Scientists were stunned to discover just how much groundwater has been lost from beneath the Colorado River over the past 10 years.

How Wildlife Declines Are Leading to Slavery and Terrorism

As wildlife numbers dwindle, wildlife crimes are rising—and that's fueling a raft of heinous crimes committed against humans.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.