May 3, 2013
By: Ashley Tuggle
Across the world we see amazing adaptations in plants and animals. Natural life has conquered extreme environments from methane vents on the deep-sea floor, to scorching deserts, to soaring mountain peaks. However, climate change is rendering some of these adaptations, and the species that exhibit them, obsolete.
The American pika (Ochotona princeps) is a small chinchilla-like mammal adapted to the cold climates around the summits of rocky peaks called ‘sky islands.’ As the climate warms, pikas are running out of places to live. Their cold-weather adaptations of heavy fur and a slow metabolism are deadly above temperatures of 77°F. Due to the constraints of food and physical space, there is a limit on how high pikas can move to escape the warming climate. Although the American pika is not listed as an endangered species by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), the government has acknowledged that the warming climate may lead to the local extinction of the pika in some of its range. Warmer temperatures would increase competition in a constrained habitat and prevent foraging during peak hours. These highland rodents are not the only species likely to face a diminished range and possible local extinction as a result of warmer temperatures.
This year, Joshua trees (Yucca brevifolia) have had a record bloom throughout the West. However, those who study the Joshua tree are concerned about what this might mean for the future of the species. These desert natives are a vital part of the ecosystem, providing moisture to animals that gnaw through their bark during the driest parts of the year. The past two years of extreme drought conditions may be partly responsible for the record bloom. Ecologists have hypothesized that the trees are putting forth an increased reproductive effort as a last effort to ensure the survival of their offspring as the parents begin to wither. Climate change research from the U.S. Geological Survey has determined that higher temperature will increase the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events such as droughts in this region. As a result, USGS has predicted that 90% of Joshua trees are going to disappear from their native range in the next 60-90 years. While naturally suited for the desert environment, Joshua trees have a limit to how much water stress and scarcity they can withstand. Unlike the American pika, they can’t pull up roots and head for higher ground.
Hope for both of these species remains. The Pikas in Peril project, funded through the National Park Service Climate Change Response Program, is a concerted effort to document pika occurrence patterns, predict distributions, measure gene flow, model connectivity, and project the impacts of climate change. Knowing the distinct characteristics of a species and its individual populations is half the battle when it comes to conservation and restoration. Not all populations of a species will face the same combination of impacts, or may suffer from one more acutely than others. Likewise, the National Park Service facilitates research on Joshua trees within Joshua Tree National Park through a research grant program. The hope is to understand and address the complex of threats facing the iconic trees and the animals they support.
If knowing is half the battle of combating the effects of climate change and rescuing these highly-specialized species, motivating everyone to do something is the other half. With the iconic pika and Joshua tree as symbols of the need to address climate change in new and innovative ways, these extraordinary species and others affected may have a fighting chance at a future in our warming world.