Volunteer-led field project combines hiking, science and cuteness
The Oregon Zoo is training volunteers ages 10 and up to seek out a species that's been called one of the "cutest endangered animals in the world."
Cascades Pika Watch — a collaboration of organizations and individual pika researchers convened by the zoo — is now in its third year, and citizen scientists from around the region are invited to help. On Saturday, April 29, the zoo is offering a free crash course on how to identify pikas and take part in the project. Register and learn more here.
American pikas — tiny mammals known for their distinctive, squeak-toy-like calls —typically live on mountain slopes at elevations above 6,000 feet. Though not currently protected under the Endangered Species Act, pikas' particular habitat and temperature requirements make the species vulnerable to global warming trends — and of special interest to biologists studying the effects of climate change.
A somewhat anomalous low-elevation population of pikas is living at the Columbia Gorge — just a half hour from Portland. That accessibility, combined with the stunning scenery of the Gorge, has made for a popular citizen science program.
Each summer, volunteers head into the field with binoculars and GPS units to stake out pika hot spots, record their locations and listen for the telltale squeak. Then they upload their data to a website where it's analyzed by biologists to better understand where pikas live and whether their range is shifting. There's also a Cascades Pika Watch Facebook group, where volunteers share pictures and stories with each other.
"It's hiking with a purpose," said volunteer Shankar Shivappa. "The sites we monitor are along public trails and are easily accessible. You get to enjoy incredible scenery while helping to maintain the integrity of that ecosystem."
The extra help biologists receive from volunteers is critical to making timely population assessments. Other pika populations have recently disappeared where they were observed less than a decade ago.
In 2016, biologists selected 80 pika monitoring sites to help determine population trends in the Gorge. Last summer, volunteers surveyed half of those, and the remaining sites will be surveyed this year.
"Pika Watch is an ideal opportunity for people who love hiking and the outdoors to take action for wildlife," said Dr. David Shepherdson, the zoo's deputy conservation manager "Conservation is ultimately only as effective as people's willingness to support it. And who could say no to a pika?"
Elsewhere in the Cascades, volunteers continue to collect opportunistic pika observations through the citsci.org database and app. There is also a very active cascades pika watch Facebook group where volunteers share pika pictures and stories from their surveys.
Banner photo courtesy Zachary Hawn