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U Study: Low-Elevation Pikas Love Moss

Jo Varner, University of Utah
Low-elevation pikas (Ochotona princeps) in the Columbia River Gorge thrive by eating moss

  Pikas are furry creatures related to rabbits that live in rockslide areas at the tops of mountains in the West.  They’re not often found below about eight thousand feet.  But a new study from the University of Utah has discovered how a population of pikas is thriving close to sea level.  

Doctoral student and study author Jo Varner says moss is the key to the pika’s survival in Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge.  It grows all over the rocks where they live.  They eat lots of moss and store more in their burrows.  Varner says the rocks also help to keep them cool – otherwise, they’d die in temperatures above 78 degrees.

“When we started out this project," Varner tells KUER, "we were sort of expecting the low-elevation pikas to be just barely hanging on and trying to make things work in this really crappy habitat.  But what we found is actually the opposite, that the low elevations seem to be part of a magic pika paradise with all their tasty snacks right there on their rocks.”

Few other animals get as much benefit from eating moss, but Varner says the pikas digest it twice when they eat their own feces.  She says the thriving low-elevation population is good news for the species because it means they may be less vulnerable to climate change.

Varner’s study has just been published in the Journal of Mammalogy.

Jo Varner's recording of a pika's call

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