Tiny mammal in trouble

They may seem small and insignificant, but they could be the canary in the coal mine for climate change.

UBC researchers have determined the American pika, long cast as a sentinel mammal for the impacts of climate change may be in more trouble than once thought.

Professor Michael Russello, a population geneticist at UBC’s Okanagan campus, has been studying the effects of climate change on wildlife species — including the American pika — for more than a decade.

“Climate change poses a major threat to biodiversity,” said Russello. “The full magnitude of the impact will partially depend on how individual species respond to their changing environments.”

Russello said there are generally three ways in which species respond to climate change: they adapt to new conditions, move to an area where the environment is more favourable or they perish.

“As climates have warmed, American pika populations at low elevations have disappeared at different points throughout western North America,” says Russello.

Scientists initially believed the small mammals were moving to higher elevations in search of cooler temperatures, but have since learned they are actually moving to lower elevations.

“We have been able to track how individuals are moving between populations. In this case, we were able to determine that individuals are not moving up in elevation, but in fact, we're moving from higher, more populated sites to lower, less populated sites,” said Matthew Waterhouse, a former Ph.D. student in Russello’s lab and first author on the paper.

While the team suggests continued research is necessary to determine whether the American pika may be able to keep pace with its changing environment, they also hint that eventually more active conservation strategies may be required.

“Although not necessary at this time, future conservation efforts could consider translocations as a wildlife management tool,” says Russello. “Given their thermal sensitivity and the fact that their habitat is largely not altered by direct human activities, the American pika may represent an important mammalian system for evaluating such conservation strategies for mitigating the harmful effects of climate change.”

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