Pikas’ amazing ability to survive wildfires

Written by: Lisa Stelzner

Primary Source: Daily Dose of Science Blog

Pikas are adorable little relatives of rabbits that live on high, rocky mountaintops, where they eat grasses, forbs (other non-woody flowering plants), moss and lichen.  A graduate student was studying pikas on Mt. Hood in Oregon and did not realize a wildfire had raged through her study site until she returned to it the next year.  All of the trees and shrubs on the Pinnacle Ridge slopes where her study site was at were completely burned, so she thought the pikas that live in the rocky talus pile there must have perished.  It turns out that part of her study included temperature sensors she placed in the rock crevices before the fire, and the sensors did not melt in the fire.  The data showed that the crevices did not increase in temperature during the fire, and that the pikas that took shelter there could have survived. This provided some novel insights on how small mammals that cannot outrun a fire could survive and repopulate an area.  However, with climate change and other stresses, a pika population still may not fully recover after fire, especially if they lose their food sources.


An American Pika.  “Ochotona princeps” by Justin Johnsen (Justin.Johnsen) – Detail of own work posted to Flickr as Pika sentry. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ochotona_princeps.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Ochotona_princeps.jpg
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Lisa Stelzner
I'm a plant biology PhD student studying monarch butterflies in Michigan, but I'm interested in lots of other types of science, too. I am interested in how breeding monarch butterflies choose their habitat based on floral species richness and abundance. Few studies have been conducted on optimal foraging theory when it involves an organism searching for two different kinds of resources, and butterflies are an ideal study system to investigate this, since many species are ovipositing specialists and only lay eggs on one species of hostplant, but are feeding generalists and nectar from a broad variety of flowering forbs.