Where species will find refuge

Nooks and crannies offer safe harbor from a changing climate.

Connie Millar picks her way across a boulder field in California’s Lee Vining Canyon. The ramparts of the High Sierra, which mark the east entrance of Yosemite National Park, claw at the western horizon. Across the valley, RVs grumble down the curves of Tioga Pass Road. But Millar is listening for something else on this autumn day: pika.

American pikas are endearing, pocket-sized mammals with prodigious ears and a distinctive high-pitched call. But they can’t tolerate heat — a trait that has made the pika into something of a climate change icon. Even President Obama recently noted that warming has pushed the creatures uphill in search of cooler conditions.

But Millar, an athletic, strawberry-blonde ecologist with the Forest Service’s Pacific Southwest Research Station, says there’s more to the story. While some studies have reported problems for pikas in the Great Basin, Millar and others have found that many populations in the Sierra Nevada and Rocky Mountains have held their ground, a feat she attributes to the unique qualities of the talus fields they call home.

Read the full story at High Country News.

Pikas live in rock piles called talus fields, which often remain cooler than the rest of the environment, offering the animals a buffer against climate change. (Credit: Alan D. Wilson via Wikimedia)