Archive from August, 2016
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