Early one August morning, on a rocky slope high in Montana’s Gallatin Range, biologist Chris Ray crouched on a boulder with a tiny, sedated furball in her hands. Ray has long, wavy salt-and-pepper hair and was wearing white nitrile gloves to protect the creature, a fist-sized denizen of the western mountains called an American pika.
Ray had captured the animal in a small metal “live trap,” and then coaxed it into a clear plastic tube primed with a cotton swab soaked in anesthetic. “Go to dreamland, buddy,” she’d cooed.
Now, she and a group of assistants sprang into action like a medical team in the operating room. They collected blood and urine samples in toothpick-sized glass vials, used tweezers to pick mites from its ears and collect fecal pellets, slid hair and tissue samples into envelopes, and gave the pika a shot of plague vaccine. Ray talked the group through each step, then weighed the critter and tagged its ear before setting it free among the rocks.
Ray is a research associate at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and she has been coming to this site every year since 1988 to chronicle the pikas who live here, making it one of the longest-running research projects of one of the West’s most adorable creatures. She came when she was pregnant with her son Max, now 11, and she came the following year too, nursing him in between bouts of field work. She wants to know what allows pikas to scratch out an existence in such an unforgiving environment, and increasingly, what may be contributing to their decline.
Pikas have become a cuddly proxy for the pernicious effects of climate change, and for good reason. The rabbit relatives are highly sensitive to temperature changes. They live high in the mountains, where temperatures are warming faster than the global average. And because pikas occupy a habitat that’s critical to life across the West—mountain snowmelt is the primary source of water for the farms and cities that have fueled the region’s growth—pika research may have a lot to say about our own future, too.
Researchers have linked rising temperatures to the decline of pikas across large areas of their range, which covers mountain chains from New Mexico to British Columbia. But Ray and her peers are only beginning to understand the mechanisms of how climate change is affecting these animals, and their work tells a story not just about what we know, but about how much we still don’t. Some of their findings challenge the narratives of climate demise that have trickled out to the general public. And Ray’s most recent data suggests the picture may be even worse than scientists had thought.
Even as strengthened climate models give more accurate forecasts of a warmer future, there remains tremendous uncertainty about what that will mean for critical ecosystems, from Amazonian forests to glacier-clad mountains. Will they evolve over time? Could they suddenly collapse? The search for answers can provide a clearer sense of what lies ahead for us, too.
Part of this uncertainty, Ray says, is that even after decades of research, scientists still have only glimpses into the inner workings of complex ecosystems. But part of it may be that the climate is changing so fast now, it’s hard to keep up.
“You’ve been there every year for 30 years, you’d like to feel like you start to understand the system,” Ray told me recently, thinking back on the summer’s work. “And 15 years into it, I started to feel like I understood the system. But 15 years later I don’t.”
Chris Ray first arrived in Montana as a college student in 1988, ready for work with a rifle in hand. Her professor, Michael Gilpin, was an early conservation biologist at the University of California, San Diego. His field was concerned with conservation, but also its opposite: extinction. Researchers wanted to know what happens when humans carve up wild landscapes, breaking up wildlife populations and isolating them from each other. Are these fragmented populations more vulnerable to extinction? And if they disappear from an isolated spot, will they ever return?
Pikas offered a convenient study subject because their populations are naturally isolated in high-mountain rock slides that are often miles apart, separated by forests and valleys. Gilpin’s plan was to find a population and then snipe them out with a pair of .22s to see how long it took for them to come back.
Such science-by-violence was not unheard of then. The famed Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson was once part of a study that involved “defaunating” six small islands in Florida with poison gas in order to watch as the bugs recolonized.
Gilpin’s pika extermination, however, was not to be. “I saw my first pika and I said, ‘Mike, we can’t shoot these animals out,'” Ray recalled. She had been drawn to science to help protect animals, not to kill them. She peppered Gilpin with reasons that the experiment was unlikely to succeed, from the pragmatic (they would never be able to shoot all of the tiny, zippy creatures) to the scientific (they had no baseline data). “He said, ‘Agh, I guess you’re right. I guess we’ll have to start a study.'”
They set about marking the rock slides—some boulders still display the original spray paint, though Ray now uses GPS—to begin to get a sense of how many pikas lived in the canyon, how far apart they spaced themselves, and how stable the population was. With Gilpin’s blessing, Ray took over the study two years later and has been trekking there every summer since. Over time, her primary focus has become how long the pikas live, and what factors—including temperature, which she’s measured with sensors since 2001—may influence their survival. No shots have ever been fired.