‘Really freaking cute’: Denver Zoo launches app to engage citizen scientists in research of iconic Colorado mountain species (with video)
Most who have hiked a Colorado 14er would know the sound of their squeal, though the uninitiated might have mistaken it for a bird.
But don’t be fooled. Those who have spotted what Colorado Mesa University professor Johanna Varner calls, “spheres with ears,” playing peek-a-boo in the scree just off trail would know — that mighty little squeak belongs not to a bird but to a pika.
“On the most basic level, pikas are just really freaking cute,” Varner said. “They live in beautiful places and they’re fun to watch. I like to use the work ‘plucky.’ They’re really plucky. They’re really resilient creatures that live under the snow many months of the year.”
Smaller relatives of rabbits and hares, American pikas are found in boulder fields throughout the western mountains of North America, Varner said. All summer long, the small potato-like creatures scamper through high-Alpine rocks, collecting wildflowers and grasses and stashing them in their dens to survive through the cold, harsh winters.
“Pikas are also great indicator species, meaning that because pikas are sensitive to changes in temperature and snowpack, they can tell us a lot about the overall health of the ecosystem,” Varner said.
Since 2010, the Colorado Pika Project, a partnership between Rocky Mountain Wild and the Denver Zoo, has enlisted and trained hundreds of volunteers to monitor pika populations and collect useful scientific data for researchers.
The Pika Project aims to help scientists better understand the impacts of climate change on pikas and the Alpine ecosystem they call home. It first focused on sites in the northern Front Range before it expanded in 2018 to include areas in Rocky Mountain National Park and the White River National Forest, America’s most-visited national forest which encompasses much of Summit County.
Now, with the launch of a new mobile phone app — Pika Patrol — anyone can help add to this ever-growing database of pika prowess, no matter where they are in the mountainous West, Colorado or beyond.
“There is a lot of Colorado we haven’t really been looking at. We’re also not looking anywhere beyond the state,” Denver Zoo community conservation coordinator Alex Wells said. “What the app allows us to do is it allows us to expand our understanding of pika behavior — anywhere we want.”
‘What makes Colorado, Colorado’
Wells grew up in western Colorado, so he has been a longtime admirer of pikas, even before he got involved with the Pika Project. The small mammals are uncharacteristically bold for their size, he said, and will run around hikers’ feet, sometimes even playing tug-of-war with their shoelaces.
He described the species as charming, charismatic, fierce and fun.
“Pikas are quintessential, core to the Colorado mountain experience,” Wells said. “They are an iconic species even though they are only about the size of a potato. The squeak of a pika sounds essential to what makes Colorado, Colorado.”
With the Pika Patrol app, everyday citizens — whether mountain town locals or out-of-town visitors — can learn more about how to identify pikas, their “roars,” whether their hay piles are active or inactive, and their poop. Then, by logging their observations in the app, patrollers can help scientists keep tabs on this iconic creature.
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Patrollers can use features in the app to record the pika’s call, take photos, pinpoint the exact coordinates where the observations were taken, and input all sorts of information from the weather to the size of the talus field they were seen on.
“You can be contributing to science and watching cute animals run around in beautiful places,” Varner said.
An American pika expert, Varner noted that the climate effects caused by humans burning fossil fuels has warmed the planet, including the mountain environments where pikas live. In the 20th century, the average annual temperature at Rocky Mountain National Park, for example, rose 3.4 degrees Fahrenheit.
Specialized species like the American pika can be sensitive to even small changes in the climate, Varner explained. But anyone who has lived in the Colorado Rocky Mountains for some time will have observed that, “with the possible exception of this last year, on average we’re seeing less snow and shallower snow and hotter summers and more wildfires compared to 20-30 years ago,” she said.
While scientists aren’t exactly sure how climate change will impact pikas, they have some hypotheses, Varner said. And, the data citizen scientists collect with the Pika Patrol app should help increase the breadth of information available for researchers, while also educating the public about a delightful little creature, she said.
“People are going to go out hiking. People are going to go out into the mountains — millions every year,” Wells said. “If folks are going to be out there, we want them to be submitting photos of pikas. We want them keeping tabs on how pikas are doing.”
‘A very sensitive needle to climate change’
As climate change has brought higher temperatures to the West, pikas have already disappeared from more than one-third of their previously known habitat in Oregon and Nevada, according to the National Wildlife Federation.
While similar disappearances have yet to be observed in Colorado, researchers have only been able to focus on small sections of the vast state, Wells said, and climate change will only continue to intensify in coming years.
One of the goals of the app is to help researchers discern where pikas may have once lived but have since abandoned, Wells said. Pika poop could help citizen scientists find those spots.
“When pikas poop — defecate — they do it in crevices under the rocky habitat they live in,” Wells said. “Because that is protected from the elements under these rocks, it sticks around for a very long time. Without any heavy equipment, you can find pellets that go back decades easily.”
Where patrollers find pika poop — but no pikas — could help scientists better understand not only how climate change is impacting pikas, but how it is impacting the Rocky Mountain ecosystems more generally, Wells said.
“Pikas are very poorly adapted to heat. They’ll die if they’re in temperatures too high,” Wells said. “At 78 degrees Fahrenheit they’ll drop dead. They’re a very sensitive needle to climate change, a canary in the coal mine.”
That heat sensitivity could be part of another danger for pikas as their habitat warms. Alpine summers are short and pikas only have a short window of time each year to gather all the hay they need to survive the winter.
But as climate change continues to increase summer temperatures, pikas will likely have to spend more time in the cool shade under the rocks and less time gathering food for winter, Wells said. That could mean more pikas may starve over the winter in addition to those that overheat over the summer.
Moreover, warmer summers could decrease the distance that juvenile pikas can travel in search of their own territory, making it more difficult for different populations of pikas to breed and creating more genetically isolated pockets of the species, Wells said.
“It’s relatively easy to know if pikas are around and, even if they’re not around now, you can get a sense of whether they were around a year ago or 5 years ago or 10 or 20,” Well said. “You can get a sense of how things change overtime.”
Ironically, Varner added, warmer winters could lead pikas to be more exposed to the dangers of the cold. Unlike many species, pikas don’t hibernate but spend the winter in the rocky talus, she said, where the snowpack works like insulation to keep them warm.
But the snowpack is expected to grow shallower as climate change intensifies, Varner said. When there is a thick layer of snow over the top of the pikas’ habitat, temperatures tend to be right around 32 degrees, but a reduced snowpack could expose the pikas’ homes to temperatures below freezing, she said.
“That is kind of a hypothesis about how pikas could be impacted by climate change,” Varner said. “We hope the app will help us tackle some of these questions a little bit better.”
‘We’d love to have you on the Pika Patrol team’
While the primary goal of the Pika Patrol app is to gather more data on the species, a secondary goal is to increase the public’s awareness of the “delightful little animals,” Varner said, and hopefully inspire those exploring the outdoors to help protect the environment.
Varner hopes learning more about a species as lovable as the American pika through the app will help locals forge a deeper connection and appreciation for their home, while tourists will be more motivated to safeguard the mountain habitats they visit.
“For me there is great existential value in knowing that pikas exist,” Varner said. “I love seeing them in the spring and knowing they just spent the whole winter under the snowpack.”
The app also includes an opportunity for patrollers to donate to the Colorado Carbon Offset Partnership. From each donation, 80% will go to the Southern Plains Land Trust to sequester carbon dioxide — a greenhouse gas — by purchasing and permanently protecting endangered prairie habitat, and 20% will be used by Rocky Mountain Wild to conserve climate-sensitive species such as the pika.
“It is beyond debate that climate change is human driven, but I think it is dangerous to put solving climate change on individuals or make people feel guilty over their carbon footprint,” Wells said. “… What we’d really like to do is push more people to be socially or politically active around climate change.”
So download the app, go climb a mountain — here in Colorado or anywhere in the West — and keep an eye and an ear out for pikas, Varner said.
“Our goal is that literally anybody with a mobile device can participate in this project,” she said. “So, if you’re interested in hiking and looking for little cute animals in the rock we’d love to have you on the Pika Patrol team.”
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