Route to Extinction Goes up Mountains, Scientists Say

Global warming is forcing the American pika up mountains and towards extinction.

ByABC News
May 9, 2007, 11:51 AM

LOVELAND PASS, Colo., May 9, 2007 — -- Voted the second cutest animal in North America in a recent World Wildlife Fund survey, the American pika is now climbing mountains toward extinction, say scientists.

Never heard of the American pika?

Not surprising, given where it lives -- often above the clouds in the upper slopes of mountain ranges across western North America, from New Mexico all the way into British Columbia.

The pika is the tiniest member of the rabbit family; it is the size of a tennis ball.Its young are the size of a fat walnut.

The American pika likes it chilly -- in fact, needs it chilly, as it sports a thick fur coat it does not shed in summer. Scientists have documented that pikas can die in under an hour if temperatures reach much above 75 degrees.Trouble is, warmer temperatures have been creeping steadily higher at all elevations due to man-made global warming, experts say. Unfortunately for pikas, the temperature increases are often most pronounced at the higher elevations that they usually inhabit.

And scientists are finding more and more pika colonies empty."There are many places, where pikas used to be, where they're completely gone now," scientist Chris Ray of the University of Colorado told ABC News.

Clambering through a pika-less stretch of "talus" -- fields of rock fragments fallen from the peaks above where pikas hide from predators and the hot midday sun -- Ray told us how these "local extinctions" point to global warming. "They're going extinct from many of the lower elevations," Ray said. "If the current trends continue at the rate they're going right now, it's very likely that pikas will be extinct within the next 100 years."

For the American pika, life was already hard enough. It spends a lot of time scampering fast to escape the leaping mountain weasel, its chief enemy.

Weasels like to eat pikas. The weasel's pliable tube-like body -- with sleek tawny-and-white pelts beautiful to humans but terrifying to pikas -- can follow them through the crevices under the talus that frustrate the hawks and eagles.

Birds of prey also pick off the occasional pika unlucky enough to be caught in the open.