Dec 8, 2015 - Colorado    No Comments

My Journey

Deciding what I wanted to do with my life was easy. Since I was small I was fascinated with animals. I loved collecting clams and fireflies, assembling rolly polly kingdoms and bringing orphaned baby birds home to my mom. My greatest love, however, was dolphins. I was obsessed with them. I spent many hours sprawled out on my floor surrounded by books bound and determined to learn about each species and how to identify them. This passion continued through middle school and high school and when the time came to choose a college and a major the choice was relatively simple: I’d study zoology at Colorado State University with the hopes of becoming a marine biologist. During my freshman year at CSU I applied for an internship at Sea World in San Antonio to be a marine mammal apprentice. I was invited to interview and flew down over Thanksgiving break for the opportunity of a lifetime. I didn’t get the position, but the experience provided me with the reassurance that I was on the right path to a career I would be passionate about. Later that year I began volunteering at a local wildlife rehabilitation center. Working there opened me up to the idea of not working with dolphins, and introduced me to the wildlife I had right outside my backdoor. I continued to chip away at school and eventually applied for a study abroad year in South Africa.
In July of my junior year I flew to the country that would provide me with an immense amount of growth, experience and knowledge, all of which propelled me through the rest of college in into my career. During my university orientation in South Africa I met an American girl who had been living in the country as a “safari guide”. She invited me to visit the game reserve she worked at where they rehabilitated cheetahs, serval and African wildcat. Over the course of the year I volunteered there a number of weekends, assisting with the husbandry of the wildlife they had, while learning about land conservation. Simultaneously I took an ecology class at the university where I was exposed to the world of wildlife research. We conducted labs on mark-recapture, camera trapping and telemetry to name a few. When I got back to Colorado I switched my major to Wildlife Biology in the hopes of learning more about management. A professor of mine announced a field technician position conducting pika research in Rocky Mountain National park one morning during class and I knew I had to have it. I contacted Chris Ray that day and she invited me to volunteer with her that upcoming summer.
That first summer of field work was truly magical. Niwot Ridge is a beautiful place; surrounded by rugged peaks and blue skies, I knew I had gotten myself to a place I wanted to be. Chris was a wonderful and patient mentor that summer. Asking for the REU position the next year was a no brainer for me and she graciously obliged. Conducting my own research that summer was a great experience. I graduated the following fall and have been working as a seasonal technician ever since. Some of my favorite jobs have included trapping Canada lynx in Leadville Colorado, working on a mountain lion and bear project in Colorado, conducting raptor and grouse surveys in Wyoming and most recently working as the bear management technician in Rocky Mountain National Park.
Getting these jobs wasn’t always easy. They required persistence and good references. The wildlife world is relatively small so making good impressions and working hard has been important. Persistence was especially important as for most jobs employers see 50+ applications. Showing interest and initiative has gotten me work that I may not have otherwise gotten. Passion is also critical. Working seasonally is tough and getting a full time job is even tougher. This field is highly competitive and working seasonally for 5+ years is not unheard of. Going to graduate school seems to be necessary for full time work. I’m currently applying to graduate schools with the intention of studying human-wildlife conflict (with bears if I can swing it). Ultimately I’d like to work for state or federal government as a wildlife manager. From pikas to bears it has been an exciting and fulfilling journey I am thrilled to continue!

– Sara McLaughlin


Jul 27, 2015 - Colorado    No Comments

Test Your Pika Knowledge!



“Heya! My name is Hilary, and I’m a rising junior at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. Being a New England girl, I’d never seen a pika before this summer and I hardly know anything about this amazing species. I’m studying the microclimate that pikas live in, down under the rocks. Over the past couple months, I’ve learned a great deal about pika. Take my quiz to test your pika knowledge. For the record, I probably would’ve failed if I’d taken this quiz two months ago.”

Take Our Quiz!

Jul 22, 2015 - Colorado    No Comments

The Life and Times of a Research Assistant

This is “Max 3” reporting for blog duty. You’ve already heard from “Max 2” (Max Plichta), and “Max 1” is exempt on account of being 7 years old. I am headed into my sophomore year at CU, studying biology and anything else I can cram into my schedule. It’s certainly been an exciting and busy summer for me working both at the Mountain Research Station and maintaining trails in Jefferson County.

LongUnoccupiedPikaHaypileSite_NWTLTERI’m from Wyoming, and anyone who is familiar with that state has encountered hurricane-force winds on a biweekly basis. I really thought I could relax and enjoy the mild Colorado weather I had escaped to…until today. With winds clocked at 50 mph, on several occasions we were nearly kited off the West Knoll by the tarps we were carrying. But while dodging flying clipboards and crouching low to the ground, we managed to get a whole lot done. I used a GPS unit to map out about a dozen pika haypiles, when I wasn’t checking traps. Here you see me and an old  pika haypile site on Niwot Ridge.


Pika survival was poor last winter, and wind keeps the pikas under cover, so we found a lot of empty traps today. The only pikas we trapped today were the ones trapped yesterday, and those pikas were pretty irritated. Patience was running thin, until the end of the day when. . .we caught a new pika! Unlike Pikachu, the pika is sensitive and must be handled with great care. It takes a whole team to anesthetize, tag, sample blood, tissue and hair, weigh and then release a pika. Fortunately we have been working together for this first half of the summer and the capture, sampling and liberation of this pika went very smoothly, resulting in exciting new experiences for me and Jasmine. Jasmine (another member of #teamPika15) named him Poncho Libre. Here I am communing with Poncho.


For Poncho, the experience might have been exciting but it was probably not so fun. I’ll ponder that while I take this next week to backpack through Rocky Mountain National Park. Thanks for reading.

Jul 7, 2015 - Colorado    No Comments

It’s All About The Data

Hi everyone, my name is Jasmine Vidrio and I’m a senior at the University of Colorado. This summer I’m having the wonderful opportunity to work with pikas. I also get to spend my summer with some amazing scientists! Below are my pika peeps from left to right: Hilary Brumberg, Drew Eline (she actually works with marmots), my advisor’s son Max, Max Wasser (yep, another Max), Jasmine Vidrio (me), and Max Plichta. (Yes, there are a lot of Maxes!)


This has been one of my first opportunities to work in the field with wild animals, and I’ve spent a lot of time hiking up to Niwot Ridge looking for signs of pika. Being in the field is amazing; I get to spend all day surrounded by beauty. But last week I was reminded that although fieldwork is spectacular, it also needs to be productive.

Before last week, I had never had to enter my field data–or anyone else’s–into a spreadsheet. In college we are often given data sets to work with, but I never understood how much work goes into transferring written notes into an Excel sheet. Let me tell you right now, neat handwriting is IMPORTANT! I had to transfer some of my own field notes into Excel and that was a bit of a struggle. But when i had to transfer someone else’s field notes, it was actually scary. Here’s a shot of a GOOD page in the notebook I was reading; but even this had missing data and strange entries!  I don’t dare show the BAD pages–wouldn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings.

Maybe the person who wrote those notes knew exactly what they were trying to say on that day, a year ago, when they scribbled across those pages, but I had NO clue what some of the words were or what that person’s original intent was! Although this may seem silly to an outsider, it made me realize that a whole day of observations could be wasted if I take horrible, messy field notes.

It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of fieldwork because, as you can see in the picture below, fieldwork can involve some otherworldly conditions.

Endless Snow

It’s not like working in a lab, and it can get a little messy. It’s easy to forget that at the end of the day the dataset is the most important thing. Data are the tools that scientists use to validate their findings. As a scientist, I want someone to read my notebook and extract critical information with ease. So I’ve made my goal this summer to be neat, precise, and detailed in my observations.

Wish me luck–my advisor just asked me to enter some more data!

Jun 28, 2015 - Colorado    No Comments

A Beautiful Sunset and a Curious Pika

Hey everyone, my name is Maxwell Plichta. This is my second year working on the pika team but my first blog post of the summer. The start of the season has been great, and I can already tell we have a great team. Earlier this week, I spent my first night of the season in the Tundra Lab. The Tundra Lab is a research facility that sits on Niwot Ridge at 11600 ft! Every time I spend a night at the lab, I see something new and incredible. Last year I saw my first elk, then my first sphinx moth, but this time I saw the most beautiful sunset. I’ve included a picture below. I spent the night at the lab so that I could stay up late and wake up early to observe pikas! 

Typically at dawn and dusk the pikas are super active and very fun to watch. This particular morning I woke up and observed a very curious pika who came right up to me and began nibbling on my pants. The pika also tried stealing my Camelbak to snack on later; I’d say it was a little large for him. Although the curiosity of the pika was not very good for data collection, he was very fun to observe. As a researcher I want to observe the pikas doing their natural routine when I interfere with this routine it can bias the data. In order to ensure good data, I need to make sure I am plenty far away so that I don’t attract too much pika attention. I cannot wait to spend another night in the Tundra Lab–stay tuned for that story!  You can also follow me and the rest of the 2015 University of Colorado pika crew on twitter @pikaresearch #teampika15.


Aug 27, 2014 - Colorado    No Comments

The Breakfast Club

Our study sites at the Brainard Lakes Recreational Area are beautiful. Add a couple of moose into the picture and it’s absolutely breath taking. We have had numerous moose sightings throughout the summer. The moose love eating breakfast just as we happen to arrive at the parking lot. I was able to snap a picture driving by! I always seem to notice the same three adult males, all eating together. I would expect there to be one male accompanied by a female, possibly two. Wierd, huh! I have seen two females in the area as well. One adult and one calf. These moose sightings have become part of the Colorado pika team’s routine.


If you have never seen a moose, it is a great experience. In the picture above, the shrubs are just shy of five feet tall. The moose is standing roughly six feet tall at shoulder height! The average weight for a male moose varies from 600 – 1000 pounds. A female moose can weigh from 500 – 700 pounds. It is incredible seeing such a big mammal, especially when you’re close to them. The moose tend to eat breakfast right by the road. I have been within 25 feet of this big guy above (of course with the comfort of my Jeep behind me). All in all if you happen to stumble into one of these guys while recreating at the Brainard Lakes area snap a picture. There will be plenty of tourists joining your photo!

~Christian Prince

Meet Grumps, the cantankerous pika

The only capture I had all day was a big slimy slug that set off the trap. Ever since I accidently rubbed my arm all over a slug at one trap, I’ve hated them. I am still washing the slug slime off that shirt; I don’t know what they make the stuff out of but someone needs to patent it. I was on the last trap of the day and I was about to get skunked. But, lo and behold, the trap was shut and I saw a fuzzy creature in it. It was an adult pika and, man, was he itching to get out of that trap. He was big with notched ears and missing fur probably from territorial disputes with neighbors. After he tried to bite me for the third time I decided two things: first, that I would call him Grumps, and second, that I really liked this pika. Life as a pika is tough, there are all sorts of predators that would like nothing better than to make dinner of you. We’ve seen several short-tailed weasels hunting around the talus for pika. On top of vicious predators, you have a harsh winter to survive, kilos of vegetation to gather, parasites to endure, and always invading pikas trying to steal your territory and hay. Grumps had the tenacity to endure this all and prosper and I had to respect him for that.


Meet Muffins, the super cute pika.


Not many animals have a super power but let me tell you about one that does. Muffins is his name and making hay is his game. We were getting desperate to catch more pika at one of our sites and thus decided to do an early, early morning. Let me tell you waking up at 3 am to hike in the dark is an adventure in will power and we had a crazy day planned out. First we set out traps at a lower site, then hiked to a high site to set more traps, then back down to the low site to check traps, back up to the high site to check those traps, and once we were all done with that we got to pack yet more traps up the mountain! After setting and checking a lot of our traps that morning our spirits could use a boost and that is when we met Muffins. All the way at the top of a site we caught arguably the cutest pika in the history of pika-kind. Just a mere 90 grams of fluff he sat in our trap calmly eating an apple. Muffins was one of this years juveniles and had recently been told to hit the road by his parents. While in the search for a new territory he had stumbled across one of our traps and decided our bait would make a nice snack. His adorable presence was exactly what we needed to get through the rest of what turned out to be a 14 hour day.


Traps, traps, and more traps…Welcome to the 2014 North Cascades pika project!

With the snow gone in the Cascades, it’s time to start our field season. Last year’s hair snares worked surprisingly well; however, to gain the depth of genetic information we require for our analysis we’ll need more DNA. This means that Ashley and I will have to live trap the animals and take a small tissue sample using an ear hole punch. We’ll focus on two transects since applying this labor intensive sampling method will take a lot longer than hair snares. Each trap weights about a pound and a half and we need to deploy about 20 to each of our 8 sites to effectively trap our animals. This means that we’ll be doing a lot of backpacking with very heavy packs. Since we’ll be in such great shape at the end of the season, I signed up to run a marathon in the fall because hey why not?