The incredible shrinking pika (habitat) of Niwot Ridge?
Hi. I’m Max Wasser, a senior Ecology student at the University of Colorado-Boulder. This is my third year working with the pika team and our advisor, Chris Ray. I'm working towards completing an honors thesis - a many-page paper detailing my research - that I will present when I graduate. Having worked with Chris for three years, I've seen and helped with some really amazing projects, and was lucky enough to begin to work on my own project during my freshman summer. I spent that first summer hiking a lot. I was curious to see how historical pika habitat was distributed on the West Knoll – a round knob on top of Niwot Ridge at almost 12,000 feet. I was especially interested in how the historical habitat compares in distribution to the current habitat.
It appears that good habitat for pikas is shrinking. But good scientists know that replication is important, so last summer we went larger! We secured funding to expand into the two valleys adjacent to Niwot Ridge using a long-term monitoring survey designed by Chris, Aidan Beers and me. Now we have several field technicians who hike each summer to all of these randomly selected points and gather data relevant to pika survival. They record the vegetation, rock structure, water and snow features, and - most importantly - signs of pika occurrence or "occupancy".
This summer I will analyze the data gathered, comparing the data on pika occupancy with snowpack data to see if we can explain pika occupancy using snowpack. This is called modeling. My hypothesis is that pikas are most likely to occur in sites with an intermediate snowpack – giving them a nice, insulating snow blanket all winter (did you know snow can keep burrowing animals from freezing to death?), and melting off early enough to let the pikas recover from a long winter by feeding on early summer grass and flowers! Here's a happy survivor early in the summer.