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Press Release 13-204
Mountain pikas, relatives of rabbits, survive at warm sea-level temperatures by eating mosses

Mosses also may protect high-peak pikas against climate change effects

a pika peers out from behind thick moss in Oregon's Columbia River Gorge.

A small mammal known as a pika peers out from behind thick moss in Oregon's Columbia River Gorge.
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December 18, 2013

In some mountain ranges, Earth's warming climate drives rabbit relatives known as pikas to higher elevations--or wipes them out.

But biologists discovered that pikas living in rockslides near sea level in Oregon can survive hot weather by eating moss.

"Pikas eat foods like moss to persist in warming environments," says biologist Denise Dearing of the University of Utah, co-author of a new paper reporting the results. The paper is published online today in the Journal of Mammalogy.

Jo Varner, also a biologist at the University of Utah and a paper co-author, says that although "some fiber is good, moss is 80 percent fiber. It's a bit like eating paper.

"By consuming mosses that grow on the rockslides where they live, the pikas don't have to forage outside the shady heat-buffer of the rocks.

"Few herbivores consume moss because it's so nutritionally deficient. These pikas set a new record for moss in a mammal's diet: 60 percent."

Pikas' extensive moss-eating "suggests that they may be more resistant to climate change than we thought," says Dearing.

The biologists, whose research was funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), believe they know why.

Like rabbits and hares, pikas produce a fraction of their feces in the form of caecal (pronounced see-cull) pellets, and reingest them to gain nutrition.

"Pikas and rabbits--and their gut microbes--are the ultimate recycling factory," Dearing says. "They ingest low-quality food over and over again, and turn it into high-quality protein and energy. The end product is six times more nutritious than the moss" that started it all.

The order Lagomorpha, to which pikas belong, has two families: one is made up of rabbits and hares, the other of pikas.

Pikas are native to cold, alpine climates--often above 8,200 feet--in North America, Asia and Eastern Europe.

Pikas are very sensitive to heat, dying if they spend more than two hours above 78 degrees Fahrenheit.

In parts of the West--including Nevada, Oregon and Colorado--pikas have gone extinct in some mountain ranges and moved to higher peaks in others.

Pikas live as high as 11,230 feet on the slopes of Mount Hood east of Portland, Ore. They also live thousands of feet down the north slope of Mount Hood in the wet, foggy Columbia River Gorge.

How do they exist in warmer places like the gorge? By living in rocks on moss-covered slopes, the researchers found.

The scientists conducted their study on two such slopes near Wyeth, Ore., from June through August, 2011 and 2012. Pikas are most active in the summer months.

The biologists surveyed the abundance of mosses, lichens, ferns, grasses, sedges, rushes, forbs, shrubs and trees in the rockslides. They found that the slopes were 60 percent to 70 percent covered by vegetation.

Samples of the pikas' food were analyzed for how much the animals ate, and for the food's nutrition and fiber content.

Sixty percent of the pikas' diet by dry weight came from mosses. The pikas favored two species: hoary rock moss and big red-stem moss.

"This study represents the highest degree of voluntary moss consumption reported for a mammalian herbivore in the wild," Dearing and Varner write in their paper.

For temperature-sensitive pikas, cool, green mosses--whether atop a mountain or at the bottom of a gorge--are life-rings.

The research was also funded by the University of Utah, Wilderness Society, Southwestern Association of Naturalists, Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology, and American Society of Mammalogists.


Media Contacts
Cheryl Dybas, NSF, (703) 292-7734, cdybas@nsf.gov
Lee Siegel, University of Utah, (801) 581-8993, lee.siegel@utah.edu

Related Websites
NSF Award: Graduate Research Fellowship Program-Varner: https://www.fastlane.nsf.gov/grfp/AwardeeList.do?method=loadAwardeeList
NSF Discovery Article: The Search for White Gold--High-Mountain Snow: http://www.nsf.gov/discoveries/disc_summ.jsp?cntn_id=127580&org=NSF

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is an independent federal agency that supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering. In fiscal year (FY) 2016, its budget is $7.5 billion. NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities and other institutions. Each year, NSF receives more than 48,000 competitive proposals for funding and makes about 12,000 new funding awards. NSF also awards about $626 million in professional and service contracts yearly.

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Pika next to a down tree
Researchers discovered that high-elevation pikas survive at sea-level by eating moss.
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A pika sits among rocks and moss
A pika sits among rocks and moss; on high peaks, pikas are threatened by global warming.
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Biologist Jo Varner collects vegetation from the haypiles pikas build under rockpiles
Biologist Jo Varner collects vegetation from the "haypiles" pikas build under rockpiles in winter.
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Jo Varner and Denise Dearing in a lab
Jo Varner and Denise Dearing found that pikas may be able to adapt to climate change.
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