Aug 6, 2014 - Colorado    No Comments

Sit Still, Get Ready, Observe

You will be amazed at what you see, well most of the time. Hi everyone, my name is Max Plichta and I am a junior at The University of Colorado in Boulder. This summer I am working with pikas, with Chris Ray and the amazing pika team. My project for this summer is to conduct observations on pika behaviors in their natural habitat. I take a seat and watch a pika for about 45 minutes writing down everything that he or she does. Whether that’s grabbing a comically large amount of plants in their mouths and scurrying back to their haypile or hiding from me underneath the talus. Regardless what my pika is doing, after sitting still for awhile I usually see something new, sometimes it’s a new activity from a pika that I have never seen before, just this last week I identified a cheek rubbing behavior that I was mistaking for licking rocks. Other times I get to see some other alpine animals like marmots, weasels or even a hawk moth, my new favorite insect you should definitely google an image. Other times I don’t see anything at all, but I get a spectacular view.


I love working out in the field because I get to be outside all day and see things that some people are not able to see. I get to work with other people that appreciate the open space and all the things you can see in the field. If you enjoy the outdoors and are interested in the sciences I suggest spending a summer in the field, not only will it be an enjoyable experience but I guarantee that you will see things you have never seen.

~ Maxwell Plichta, Pika Team-Colorado


Jul 26, 2014 - Colorado    No Comments

5 Things I Wish I Knew Before I Became a REU Field Researcher (Part 5)

Do you like flowers? Then the Alpine is definitely for you! – As I said before, I am from sea level. I’m used to being around beaches, sand, and water. I grew up fourty minutes from the harbor, and to this day, my aunt and I still go there to buy loads of the best fish on the coast. However, I’m actually considering moving to Colorado because of the wonderful and diverse plant life. I’m extremely happy that my project involved studying vegetation. For one, I get to stare at beautiful yellow and white flowers almost every day. My personal favorite? Erigeron Simplex – the purple daisy. I’ve never seen one in my life until earlier this month, and I’ve fallen in love with them!


I really do love it up here on the alpine. The wildlife, the flowers, the people – everything is amazing, and quite new to me. Getting paid to look at cute animals and awesome plants was never in my life plans – but I could definitely see myself doing this again!

Jul 26, 2014 - Colorado    No Comments

5 Things I Wish I Knew Before I Became a REU Field Researcher (Part 4)

Lions, Tigers(?) and Bears – Oh my! ~ If you want to see some wildlife, this is definitely the place for you! I’ve seen moose from afar AND up close (by accident, mind you – I almost ran into it!). I’ve seen coyotes and mountain lion scat. I’ve had hummingbirds fly up to me and inspect my hair before flying away just as quickly as they have appeared. Bears are also a wee bit of a problem up here – one shattered the window to my coworker’s car and crawled right in – just to get his lunch. You definitely don’t see things like that happening in Maryland!


Jul 26, 2014 - Uncategorized    No Comments

5 Things I Wish I Knew Before I Became a REU Field Researcher (Part 3)

Pika CPR is actually a thing? ~ It’s a wonder that I’ve gotten this far and I haven’t talked about pikas yet. Field research is amazing – you get a wonderful view, and you also get to look vibrant flowers and cool animals all day long.
For 2 – 4 weeks out of the year, we spend our days trapping pikas at all of our study sites. We also process them (take blood samples, saliva, temperatures, etc.), tag their ears with special colors, and re-release them again into the wild. However, even during the short 20 – 30 minutes that we spend with each pika, they can get pretty stressed out. Pikas under anesthesia sometimes have labored breathing and must undergo CPR if breathing stops completely. No worries though – pikas rarely go into a state of complete shock (and even if they do, CPR usually brings them back to a stable state). However, pikas aren’t usually the only things I see up here…


Jul 25, 2014 - Uncategorized    No Comments

5 Things I Wish I Knew Before I Became a REU Field Researcher (Part 2)

The cold and the erratic weather! ~ I was almost completely unprepared for alpine weather. It was a good thing I packed warm hiking clothes, but I eventually began to use said clothes for hiking AND sleeping. For the first month or so, Team Pika was forced to hike an extra mile up to the study site because of the snow’s refusal to melt! If I could go back into the future and do things differently, I would DEFINITELY pack warmer clothes – and a lot of them.

One other thing that you should definitely note is the presence of erratic weather. It rains almost every day, and almost always gets cold at night (especially around this time of the year). Our work day almost always ends around 2 – 3 p.m. = not because of the fact that we’re tired, but because we usually sense the presence of thunder around that time.


Jul 23, 2014 - Colorado    No Comments

5 Things I Wish I Knew Before I Became an REU Field Researcher

Hey there! My name is Diamond Nwaeze, and I am one of the pika researchers up here in Colorado this summer! I’m from Maryland, and things here are a lot different from home.


I absolutely love working up here with my team – but there are definitely a few things I’d tell myself if I knew what to watch out for! Instead, I’ll share those things with you. First of all….

1) Altitude Sickness actually isn’t that bad. ~ I remember my first conversation with my supervisor – the dreaded interview. Of course, if you know Chris yourself, you’d know that she is an extremely cool, kind, and generous person. The interview was amazing (at least, on my end) but a few things that she said stuck out in my mind – primarily, the warnings about altitude sickness stuck out like a sore thumb.
I can remember that piece of the conversation so clearly: “Diamond, don’t forget to look up the effects of HAPE (High Altitude Pulmonary Edema), AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness), and HACE (High Altitude Cerebral Edema)! Check to see if your family has a history of high blood pressure! Have you ever been hiking before?”
I didn’t necessarily heed her warnings until I ended the conversation and looked up those conditions myself. I’ve never been hiking in my life – let alone even been on a mountain, or even above sea level! HAPE and HAES sounded like nasty conditions that I did not feel like dealing with.
After a bit of research, I did a quite bit of shopping and prepared myself. I made sure to pack a lot of water bottles (staying hydrated is extremely important when at high altitudes) and I bought myself a bottle of Ginko Biloba to increase my blood circulation.
To my surprise, arriving at the study site and hiking up towards Niwot Ridge was not all that bad. I had to deal with the usual breathlessness that most without hiking experience were forced to go through – but otherwise, everything was decent. I didn’t succumb to AMS due to the fact that I was extremely hydrated, so that was one less thing I had to worry about. Check back later to find out the one thing I did not prepare for…

Jul 9, 2014 - Colorado    No Comments

The Neverending Field Season

I notice changes, not seasons. Last October we put radio collars on a few pikas and I’ve been tracking them every week since, hiking, biking, skiing to the field site to follow the pika movements under the rocks and snow. The radio signals I follow are echoes of a pika’s behavior; I hear it scramble otherwise unseen. I’m lucky enough that for me, the field season didn’t end with snow last fall or start with clear talus this spring. So instead of delineating the year in segments, I remember change as how deep the snow, how cold the wind (and fingers), how warm the sun, how slow the climb to the site, how bright the trees, and how empty the parking lot. There were times in the winter, dark and cold and windy, when I arrived to fresh snow and found no human tracks but my own in the seven mile round-trip. Now the human tracks are starting to outnumber the snowshoe hare and flowers outnumber everyone. The grasses are green and the marmots are out again, so I guess that means it’s summer, but I’m not sure I can define seasons as well anymore. I knew that being alone in the snow meant it was probably winter and the fact that my sweat doesn’t freeze inside my jacket means it’s not winter anymore. Probably.

One of the biggest changes is that I can now count on seeing a pika with a small white cube under his chin and an almost-imperceptible crease in the fur around his neck. As the days have become more pleasant and the wind less biting, I notice that territories seem much wider and less constrained to areas protected from that wind. As the weather continues to change, I’m curious: will the summer thunderstorms pin the pikas down as much as the researchers? Will the hot days make the winter shelters essential again? If so, I expect I’ll see it gradually, changing a bit with each summer day and again with the fall frost.

~ Aidan Beers, Team Pika-Colorado

Jul 6, 2014 - Colorado    No Comments

Living the good life!

Hi my name is Loren Griswold and I’m part of the Colorado pika crew. It has been a great summer so far. I am really enjoying living in the mountains and spending time outside everyday.


I am doing a research project that looks at how pikas select their winter diet. Pikas collect plants and store them for food during the winter months. I am studying what factors play into their winter diet selection.


Last weekend I went on a field trip to South Park. We got to enjoy some really beautiful views and learn about the unique ecosystems there. We also learned about what other researchers were doing there.


Life as a researcher is great!

Jun 29, 2014 - Colorado    No Comments

The New Field Season Begins!

Hi there!

My name is Jesse Marcus and I am excited to introduce you to the University of Colorado Pika Project! Led by Chris Ray, the Pika Team is spending the summer researching pika at CU’s Mountain Research Station just 45 minutes northwest of Boulder, Colorado. Our team consists of interns, volunteers, and both undergraduate and graduate students from around the country, specializing in a variety of disciplines from data analysis to audio engineering to climate change science. We are using a variety of different tools and gadgets, such as sound recorders, camera traps, and radio-telemetry to follow these curious little creatures and further our understanding of the pikas’ role in the alpine ecosystem.

We are very excited to have this blog as a tool for outreach, and we want to show you just how well our research is going. Follow @PikaResearch @SciLIVE_Pikas on Twitter for the latest pika news and pics! And don’t forget to check back in every week for new blog posts and more!


The Team! (Clockwise from Bottom Right): Max Plichta, Ron Abbott, Jesse Marcus, Aidan Beers, Loren G, Peter Erb, Dan Luccock, Christian Prince, Diamond Nwaeze, Megan Wiebe)

The Team! (Clockwise from Bottom Right): Max Plichta, Ron Abbott, Jesse Marcus, Aidan Beers, Loren G, Peter Erb, Dan Luccock, Christian Prince, Diamond Nwaeze, Megan Wiebe)

The University of Colorado Mountain Research Station located on Niwot Ridge

The University of Colorado Mountain Research Station located on Niwot Ridge

The edge of the Niwot Biosphere Reserve with Christian, Jesse, and Max.

The edge of the Niwot Biosphere Reserve with Christian, Jesse, and Max.

Some beautiful Skypilot (Polemonium eximium) growing on the north slope of one of our sites.

Some beautiful Skypilot (Polemonium eximium) growing on the north slope of one of our sites.

Just a marmot and Max enjoying each other's company. Marmots and pika get along great up in the alpine!

Just a marmot and Max enjoying each other’s company. Marmots and pika get along great up in the alpine!

The Famous Pancake Experiment

Hmm…how best to preserve our samples? DNA is a long and fragile molecule and it can be tricky to keep a biological sample is protected enough to ensure a high quality genetic sample. One of the easiest and best methods is to keep the sample in a cool, dry environment; so how best to preserve pika hair samples that are stuck on packing tape? Time to hunt around the lab for some supplies.

There’s always a truckload of 15mL tubes in pretty much any lab worth its salt, but if we store the samples in a sealed tube, how will they ever dry? Answer, there needs to be some desiccant inside of each tube. The downside of this of course is that the desiccant will stick to the packing tape we used to get the hair sample. We needed a membrane that would separate the desiccant from the sample but still allow air to flow between the two.

Kimwipes are about as common in genetics labs as fleas on a stray dog and just might do the trick. So we cut these tissues into small sections and jammed into each tube like loading an old musket. This seemed to work well so we produced them en mass.


We were, however, worried that this would prohibit air exchange between the desiccant and sample. Thus began the famous pancake experiment of 2013. The desiccant is normally a blue color and turns bright pink when it absorbs water. We needed something to test dry, and the morning’s breakfast sounded perfect. A small piece of pancake inserted in the tube should turn the desiccant pink if air is exchanging across the Kimwipe and drying out the pancake. We inserted a small piece of the pancake and waited eagerly for signs of pink. To our great relief after a few hours the desiccant showed signs of turning pink and, the morning after, half the desiccant was wonderfully pink. The only downfall, we lost a bite of a tasty pancake, but it was all in the name of science.