Dec 19, 2016 - Uncategorized    No Comments

Pika Trap 2.0

Ready for another great idea from First Lego League?

We are the Pixelated Pikas, a 5th grade First Lego League robotics team from Denver, Colorado. As part of our robotics project, we decided to research the American pika. Our science teacher and robotics coach mentioned that he frequently saw pikas in the Colorado mountains as he was hiking. He also said that the pika population is declining and suggested we might want to find out more about them and think of ways we could help.

Based on a Skype call with Chris Ray, we found out that pikas are small creatures looking a bit like guinea pigs. Apparently pikas overheat easily and cannot survive temperatures above 78 F for more than six hours. Pikas use the sub-surface spaces among rocks in boulder fields and taluses to cool off and avoid surface temperatures. We also learned that researchers like Dr. Ray are trying to figure out why the pika population is declining, and that potential reasons include climate change and diseases.

Our team brainstormed ways that we could help researchers study pikas, and we agreed that the current traps that the researchers use could be modified to possibly provide useful data from more animals with less interaction. We decided to make a trap that would both capture the pika and gather some information as well.

Our team decided on what the trap would look like when we found a container that had the right size and shape for our idea.


Our team discussed lots of ideas and decided to add a weight sensor that allows us to weigh the pika, and a camera to confirm that the animal trapped is a pika and possibly to read its ear tags. We also decided that a (sticky) glue board may be helpful to researchers by providing them with hair samples from the trapped pika.

We consulted with a veterinarian for a simple design for a one-way trap door. We then added a motor to allow researchers to remotely open the door.

Finally, the team decided to add wire mesh for ventilation, and a control box which sends data back to the researchers and also houses the power supply for the equipment.


After looking at catalogs of electronic parts like these, the team estimated that our trap might cost around $100 in parts.

Our team thought that the “Pika Trap 2.0” would gather more data compared to the present traps. With our trap, researchers can collect blood samples from the fleas on the glue board and hair samples from the pika. Data from the weight sensor might give some information about the pika’s nutrition. The camera in our trap could be used to identify the individual pika, show the behavior of the pika, and allow researchers to release certain animals without being seen.


Our team thought the trap might be helpful to pika researchers because they could get all this data without having to hike up the mountains again and again.

~ by the Pixelated Pikas

Dec 7, 2016 - Uncategorized    No Comments

Saving the American Pika

We are students in Mechanical Mayhem, the 5th grade First Lego League team for a charter school in St. Louis. We have been doing research on an animal called the American pika. The pika lives in the mountains and other remote places, so people don’t see them often. They are very territorial so there are not many in one place at once. Pikas face a lot of different problems and we are trying to find a way to help them. One problem for the pika might be too much nitrogen in the environment. Nitrogen is reactive and can cause changes that reduce the amount of selenium in the environment. Selenium is a trace metal that pikas need, so extra nitrogen might cause them to be selenium deficient. To help with this, we are putting selenium salt licks in their environment. It’s part of a study to see what pikas need.

At first we thought we would do something that would blend in with the environment, so we put a salt lick in a fake tree stump. This was our first prototype.


The reason we couldn’t use our first prototype is because the hole was too big and other larger animals could get into it, so we came up with another idea, to use PVC pipe. We realized that we needed a smaller opening that was 2 inches in diameter so that only the pika could fit in the opening. We planned to hang the salt lick inside.


This is our finished prototype. We decided to use narrow PVC pipes because bigger animals can’t get into them. Here are some more detailed photos of our design:




At one end of the PVC pipe we fastened the salt lick into the top. This makes it easy to remove. You simply have to unscrew the nut and pull the screw out to replace it. The top photo shows the salt lick on the screw. The middle photo shows where the pika gets in and out of the pipe. The bottom photo shows the whole PVC pipe and the end on the far left is where the salt lick is.

The PVC pipe is going to be buried in the rocks where the pikas live, so bigger animals can’t take it. We used PVC pipe because it is a hard plastic and bigger animals won’t be able to eat it or get into it. We e-mailed with Dr. Chris Ray from the University of Colorado to help us design our prototype. With her suggestions, we made sure it was the right size for the pika.

Our PVC pipes cost about $15 all together and the salt lick cost $2-3 dollars. Each pipe can only be used by one pika because they are territorial, so it is important for the solution to be low cost. It is pretty feasible. It is incredibly easy to make. You just have to put the pipes together. Our solution is also a good idea because you can buy the materials anywhere that there is a hardware store. I think our idea is special because we tried multiple times with different ideas. We are using PVC pipe somewhere where it is not often used.

By: Emma, Evan, and Weston


Oct 27, 2016 - Uncategorized    No Comments

Citizen Science and the Joy of Pikas

We’re Susan and Mike Molloy, volunteers for the Front Range Pika Project (FRPP) for the past 3 seasons, and we’re happy to share our thoughts about our involvement in this important research.

Unlike many of the guest bloggers and researchers here, we fit in a different demographic. We just entered into our sixties and have been retired for a few years. Neither of us have an educational background in the sciences, and nothing in our working careers prepared us for something like this.

Mike and Susan on the summit of Mt Ida (Inkwell Lake at back; Azure Lake front)

But for us, volunteering with FRPP was a natural fit with our various personal interests and passions — being outside, hiking, observing wildlife, photography, travel, technology, meeting interesting people, and in general, just satisfying our curiosity about the world we live in. And both of us value giving something back to our community and society.

We had often observed pikas in our many hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park, but aside from seeing them as “cute” and entertaining to watch, we didn’t know that much about them beyond what you’d read in a national park brochure or nature guidebook. But at least we knew they weren’t rodents! :-)


For several years, our travel mascot has been Petey the Pika, a small stuffed pika we picked up at a National Forest Service visitor center gift shop. He travels on the dash of our car, and peeks out of Susan’s backpack when we hike.


So when Susan learned of the FRPP, we were excited to participate. Oh, and an opportunity to do more hiking? Yes, please.

During our classroom and field training, we were happy to meet other like-minded people of all ages and backgrounds. As we discovered from several years of birdwatching, the people you meet are the best!

It was cool to learn more about the pika and their habitat. Just the training alone gave us a much better understanding of these little mammals, and we couldn’t wait to do our first hike to our first pika location.

Pika Project training class near Loveland Pass

We took our role as citizen scientists very seriously. We’d been given training, knowledge, and field protocols and we wanted to bring back the best data we could.

And it was pretty cool to have a research permit in our pocket and to leave the busy hiking trails to get to more remote locations.

So we did a steep and strenuous bushwhack up Bighorn Mountain and successfully used our GPS to find the site where we immediately heard and saw a pika, found a fresh haypile, and collected fresh scat. We measured winds and temperatures, found the datalogger, and thoroughly documented the site. And we did all this in the best outdoor “office” anyone could ever hope to enjoy. We were hooked!

Looking mostly west from pika location talus slope

We had similarly wonderful and successful “pika hikes” at Trap Lake and Mt Audubon, but found no signs of pika at the Grand Lake site, and the Willow Park site. But no evidence of pika is data too, so we believe our efforts were useful.

Our appreciation and enjoyment of seeing pika when we aren’t doing citizen science has increased. We always build in extra time for our hikes in pika habitat. They’re just such a joy to watch and photograph.


We have become pika project “ambassadors” in our circle of friends, and with our families, especially our grandkids. It’s very possible that we overestimate the interest of others when it comes to the pika, but there are worse qualities to have. :-)

We are thrilled to be citizen science pika “researchers” and look forward to many more years of contributing as much as we can.


For more on Susan and Mike’s pika adventures check out their blog at:

Sep 14, 2016 - Uncategorized    No Comments

A message from India!

Hello teamPika16!

I am Sabuj, a post-doctoral researcher from India working on a pika species that lives in the Himalaya, “Royle’s pika” (Ochotona roylei). I’ve been studying Royle’s pika in the western Himalaya for 9 years, and I’m excited to compare notes with you about how Himalayan pikas differ from pikas in the Colorado Rockies. Here is an adult Royle’s pika in Kedarnath Wildlife Sanctuary, Western Himalaya, India.


There are many species of pika in the Himalaya, but little is known about them. My first search of the scientific literature turned up only three articles, all published during late 1960s by Takeo Kawamichi on the winter behavior of two pika species in the Himalaya of Nepal. There were literally zero studies between 1969 and 2007! I had to rely on information from the literature on the American pika to guide my initial Himalayan research. Though my study species lives in taluses and boulder fields like your American pika, it’s behavior is quite different.

Until I joined Dr. Chris Ray for my Fulbright project on Niwot Ridge in Colorado, I wondered what a “winter haypile” might look like, because food-hoarding behavior is not at all prominent among most of the Himalayan pika species (except the Plateau pika in the Trans Himalayan region). Royle’s pika generally forages on herbs and grasses in alpine meadows, rarely straying more than 5 meters from the rocks and crevices they use for shelter. In areas with little cover for escaping predators, they will often store forage temporarily in front of their crevices, to feed on during hours of high predation risk. Unlike pika habitats in the western United States, the western Himalaya receives a lot of rainfall during much of the year, so many of the rocks are covered with moss. Royle’s pika feeds on these mosses when their habitat is snow covered during winter (December to February), which is probably why they don’t need to cache food for the winter. Here’s an adult Royle’s pika hiding among some moss-covered talus at Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve, Western Himalaya, India.


The lack of hoarding behavior and food caches or haypiles, and the fact that Royle’s pika doesn’t vocalize as much as the American pika, all make it difficult to find each pika’s activity center. And without identifying activity centers, which are the best places for trapping, it’s hard to sample and mark pikas for genetic, behavioral and physiological studies. Another way to get genetic samples is to stretch adhesive tape between rocks to snare hair from passing pikas, but high humidity in the Himalaya spoils that approach, too! But there’s always a way around every problem; for my current research on gene flow, I’m sampling genetic material from pika poop.

Anyway, thank you so much for sharing your blog! It is written so wonderfully. While reading each post, I was wondering about which data you are collecting and what analyses you are planning to do. It is really exciting!

Just like in Airy’s blog, in the western Himalaya I have also seen pikas remain active at night. I would be interested to know if the pikas’ nocturnal activity varies with the phase of the moon. Will you be doing those analyses?

In 2013, while camera trapping to estimate abundance of nocturnal mammals in the eastern Himalaya, one of my colleagues noticed pikas in both daytime and night-time photos. At the den of a red fox, one camera repeatedly recorded pikas and foxes, prey and predators, using the same location at different times of day!

Hopefully all this research will help us understand, in a more holistic way, how climate change might affect pika.

Hugs, Sabuj

Sep 5, 2016 - Uncategorized    No Comments

Behavior research dream: from Ocean to Alpine.

My name is Airy Peralta, I grew up at the Southeast of Mexico in the city of Villahermosa and moved to La Paz, Mexico to study what I thought was my dream, marine biology. As time in my undergraduate program passed and I explored many areas of research, I discovered my real passion was ethology (the science of animal behavior).

By the end of my undergraduate program I got the opportunity to do a research project for my honor thesis about blue whale behavior. This project got me camping on a little island for 3 months where I had the opportunity of observe a bunch of animals (marine and terrestrial) and their behavior. I knew that I wanted to know more and not only about marine animals, so I decided to find a good ecology program for graduate school. In Mexico there aren’t any programs focused in ethology, but only general biology, fisheries, and resources management, so I knew I had to get out of there.

Airy doing whale research

After much research I found many good programs in the U.S.A., but the problem was that my English wasn’t very good, so I enrolled in the Au Pair program. While in this program I met Joseph Merritt, a senior mammalogist with the Illinois Natural History Survey. He gave me one of his books with a little cute animal on the cover that was carrying grass and flowers and that was the first time I saw a pika. Before this I did not know what a pika was. As I kept reading I got more interested and discovered that it wasn’t a mouse as I thought but a kind of rabbit. I called him and asked him if he knew about researchers in Colorado that work with this animal. He told me about Chris Ray, so I contacted her to see if I could volunteer. Fortunately, she gave me the opportunity to experience another kind of research.

Airy doing pika work - collage

So I passed from walking at sea level to hiking, biking, talking, sledding in trash bags, collecting field data and making new friends in an alpine environment. This was my best summer in years. For #teamPika16 I was given the opportunity to start a behavioral project using camera traps. This is awesome because with cameras you can discover what pikas do when there is no human presence. Cameras also let us know that pika are not only active during the day, but at night too. This leads us to question if are they more active at night or in the morning, and also how the proportion of nocturnal activity is changing as the climate is changing.

Automated photos of a pika territory at night versus during the day

To answer this question won’t be an easy job. Pikas are really quick and elusive animals, leading the camera trap to trigger many photos, plus the photos that other animals trigger; this leaves us with about 4000 photos to analyze so far! It will take some time but we will get there and I am pretty sure this will lead to interesting results. Until then, see you next season.


Aug 30, 2016 - Colorado    No Comments

Behind the Scenes

Pikas are the most adorable critters ever. If you’re having trouble imagining them, think of dog squeak toys but extremely soft and a thousand times cuter. My name is Katara, and I am a freshman at CU Boulder! Unlike my fellow team members, #teamPika16, I was unable to pursue a personal pika project this summer because I had pneumonia during the first couple of weeks of fieldwork. Instead, I’ll talk more about the action behind-the-scenes of what you do after you’ve been observing a pika.

To all of the volunteers that observe pikas as part of the Front Range Pika Project, my thanks go out to you! Observing pikas is one of my favorite things. It’s peaceful, quiet, and if you’re really lucky you’ll get a curious one.

Pikas are the most adorable critters, but they blend in SO well. Can you spot the pika?
Ok, here it is!

Once we trap a pika, the little guy, or gal, gets put into an anesthesia chamber. From there we take tons of measurements, ranging from foot size to sex to molting fur. Sometimes the pika has to go back into the chamber as it starts to regain consciousness; this mostly happens with juveniles. We sample blood, too (to study disease), and if we get enough we’ll use a centrifuge on site to separate the plasma from the red blood cells. The battery for the centrifuge is surprisingly heavy, and we have to haul it, along with other equipment, up to the field site every day. All of the physical samples promptly get labeled and placed in a freezer for later use.

The team hard at work!

After handling the pikas carefully, we release them in the same area where we found them, so that they can find their way home. KataraPhoto4

Aug 22, 2016 - Uncategorized    No Comments

Max the Magnificent

If someone wants you to blog and you miss the deadline…well…you’re asking for it. Max Wasser of #teamPika16 missed his deadline, so we’re posting our most embarrassing photos of his exploits in the field, ostensibly doing pika research…

…on skis…
…in the outhouse…
…in the lake…
…and with hot sauce!
Oh, and let’s not forget the bike-ski-thing. Not sure how the fieldwork gets done, but he seems to have fun. :)

Aug 11, 2016 - Colorado    No Comments

My Summer with the Pika

When people ask me what my summer plans are, I try really hard not to brag. But it’s hard to contain my excitement when I’m talking about my dream job. Granted, working as a “pika research intern” isn’t most people’s first choice of summer employment, but I can’t think of anything else I’d rather do than observe these precious alpine critters for three months. I get to do this because I am lucky enough to be part of a Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program run by the University of Colorado and funded by the National Science Foundation. This program is designed to both inspire and teach undergrad students how to do real ecology field work by matching us with mentors.
You may be asking yourself – what is a pika? Why bother researching them? If you’ve ever found yourself scrambling up a rocky slope – called talus – anywhere near the Cascades, Rocky Mountains, or Great Basin, then you’ve probably heard a pika yelling at you. Although barely the size of a Big Mac, pika are territorial and will issue a series of squeaks warning you to stay away and telling nearby pika that there is an intruder. Right now they are of particular interest because they may be sensitive to climate change. Pika are well adapted to survive the frigid winters of the high mountains, but when summer temperatures skyrocket, they risk overheating. Thus they could potentially serve as an indicator species and help scientists monitor the extent and effects of changing global temperatures.
Typically, pika researchers in the Colorado Front Range only observe pika behavior from about 9 AM to 3 PM. This is mostly because afternoon thunderstorms consistently chase researchers off the high mountains. Pika also live in places that are difficult to access and few people want to wake up every day at 4 AM to drive and hike several hours to their field site. I’m curious about pika behavior at dawn and dusk, those times that no one is around to watch them. I want to figure out if these 9 AM observations are representative of other times of day. And thanks to the REU program, I live close enough to my mentor’s sites that I can work around the weather and do these observations myself.

Here is a day in the life of a pika researcher (aka me):
4:30 AM – Wake up, eat a bagel, put on every layer of warm clothing I own, and hike to my research site. Sometimes I get to stay up at the Tundra Lab, a facility nestled in the saddle of Niwot Ridge (11,600’), which means I get to witness unbelievable sunsets and sunrises.

6 AM-8AM – Behavioral observations. This consists of me huddling against the wind and staring desperately at the rocky landscape around me, hoping to spot a pika.

9 AM – Meet up with the rest of my #teamPika16 crew and help my mentor with trapping. My commute to work is the best – an hour’s hike through the woods to a GPS point my mentor emailed me the previous night. We trap pika mainly so we can tag them, gather data, and track their survival year to year.

6 PM-8 PM – More behavioral observations. This is my favorite part of the day because pika are so curious they will often come within a meter of me and try to chew my boots.


Although my average work day starts early, ends late, and usually involves 10-13 miles of hiking, I couldn’t imagine working anywhere else. That beautiful sunrise photo on your desktop screensaver? That’s what I wake up to every morning. The pine fresh air freshener that dangles from your rearview during your city commute? I hike through pine forests that put those synthetic scents to shame. Yes, the office dog may be adorable, but pika can be just as friendly. And there’s nothing as magical as feeling the quivering weight of a pika sitting on your boot. Every day I wake up to new wonders and adventures that make me grateful to be alive.

~ Lauren Benedict

Jul 31, 2016 - Colorado    No Comments

Calling All Pikas!

Hi there! My name is Angela DeLuca and I am an incoming senior at CU-Boulder. I have spent this summer working with #teamPika16 in Colorado. Working as a field research assistant has been one of the most inspiring and eye-opening experiences I have had as a university student. Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday the team and I gear up (bright and early) to observe and/or trap pikas in various sites with breath-taking views.
Each of us has been working on an individual project – mine is focused on identifying vegetation growing near pika habitats. These cute furry animals collect flowers and grasses during the late summer and store them to keep themselves fueled for long, snowy winters. To carry out this study I first try to find a “historical” pika hay pile (meaning a hay pile that pikas have been using for multiple years) by hiking up and down the talus slope. Then I find the most upslope path from the haypile and measure every half-meter. At every half-meter I stick a pin flag in the ground and try to identify all of the species of plants that are touching the flag. At first I had almost no idea what any of the names of alpine wildflowers and species were, but now I’m starting to get the hang of it! I continue to do this for 25 meters. After that’s done, I then do the same for the downslope, and to the left and right side of the haypile. One hay pile vegetation analysis can take me around two hours if I am working alone, but luckily I have the mountain views and wonderful teammates to help me! It really amazes me how different the species of vegetation are at the various sites – my personal favorite flowers are Alpine Avens (which pikas adore).
As much as I love getting up close and personal with flowers and trees for hours, the highlight of this experience has been to really learn about the habitat and behavior of pikas and how sensitive they are to their surroundings. Getting to help trap and release them in the name of science is so wonderful!


Jul 22, 2016 - Colorado    No Comments

On the Experience of a Pika Researcher

I remember the first time I encountered a wild pika. It was atop Piegan Pass in Glacier National Park, MT during the summer of 2006 and in that moment I remember with clarity promising to the pikas that I would return. A physical return to Glacier National Park is in the future hopefully, but my return to their rocky alpine habitat this summer has been far more rewarding than I could have hoped. Just look at Niwot Ridge where I work! Being an active part of the #teamPika16 has been, and continues to be a great way to give back to these amazing and emblematic animals of the fragile alpine environment.


As a graduating environmental studies student, I can’t think of a better, and at the same time worse, way to end my studies. It’s the best because who can complain about working with a great crew in a beautiful environment with quite possibly the cutest animals on the planet? But it’s the worst because I now am faced with leaving for the real world knowing that had I been more vigilant like some of the younger team members, I could have lent myself to the cause longer and more thoroughly. Of course I can continue in the field, but who knows where life will take each of us. Still, I am filled with hope that everyone on the team, new or experienced, can help contribute to the science behind these alpine denizens.


I’m studying the pika’s microclimate by burying temperature sensors in the rocky taluses where each pika lives. The sensors take data while I take a break…and while I learn to use computer programs to analyze all those data!

There are so many different projects being undertaken by #teamPika16 right now, from vegetation plotting, to microclimate studies, to pika behavior monitoring, and more! All of this being done mostly by us amateur-student scientists, just showing how much there is to learn still about the species and its challenging mountain environment. We have fun and do serious work at the same time, leaving us all with few complaints. We’ve been grounded for a few days, awaiting a new shipment of plague vaccine (that’s right, we vaccinate the pikas against bubonic plague, just in case). But when the vaccine comes in, we’ll be back in the alpine where we belong!

-Jeremy Bonnell