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Tiny pikas seem to be on march toward extinction in Great Basin

The tiny rabbit-like American pika, an animal species considered to be one of the best canaries in a coal mine for detecting global warming in the western United States, appears to be veering toward the brink of extinction in the Great Basin.

New research indicates the small mammals, which are very sensitive to high temperatures, are being pushed upward in their mountain habitat and are running out of places to live. Climate change and human activities appear to be primary factors imperiling the pika, reports University of Washington archaeologist Donald Grayson in the current issue of the Journal of Biogeography.

Grayson's research which looks at a 40,000-year record of archaeological and paleontological sites, combined with yet unpublished work by several other researchers, paints a bleak future for the American pika (Ochotona princeps) in the Great Basin.

"Human influences have combined with factors such as climate change operating over longer time scales to produce the diminished distribution of pikas in the Great Basin today. This makes controlling our current impacts on them all that more important," said Grayson.

Human activities that appear to impact the animals include the proximity of roads to their habitat and pressure from grazing livestock.

The animals are isolated in patches across mountainous areas in western North America, from the southern Sierra Nevada and Rocky mountains to central British Columbia in Canada. In the Great Basin, these mountains are separated by large valleys with desert-like conditions that pikas can't tolerate. Pikas live in rock-strewn talus slopes that provide them with air-conditioning from hot temperatures and protection from predators.

Grayson's analysis of 57 well-dated archaeological sites, dating as far back as 40,000 years, shows that pikas have been pushed to higher and higher elevations. During the late Pleistocene and early Holocene epochs, 40,000 to about 7,500 yea
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Contact: Joel Schwarz
joels@u.washington.edu
206-543-2580
University of Washington
29-Dec-2005


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