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