American pikas show resiliency in the face of global warming

October 13, 2020

The American pika is a charismatic, diminutive relative of rabbits that some researchers say is at high risk of extinction due to climate change. Pikas typically live in cool habitats, often in mountains, under rocks and boulders. Because pikas are sensitive to high temperatures, some researchers predict that, as the Earth’s temperature rises, pikas will have to move ever higher elevations until they eventually run out of habitat and die out. Some scientists have claimed this cute little herbivore is the proverbial canary in the coal mine for climate change.

A new extensive review by Arizona State University Emeritus Professor Andrew Smith, published in the October issue of the Journal of Mammalogy, finds that the American pika is far more resilient in the face of warm temperatures than previously believed. While emphasizing that climate change is a serious threat to the survival of many species on Earth, Smith believes that the American pika currently is adapting remarkably well.  Photo by Andrew Smith Download Full Image

Smith has studied the American pika for more than 50 years and presents evidence from a thorough literature review showing that American pika populations are healthy across the full range of the species, which extends from British Columbia and Alberta in Canada to northern New Mexico in the U.S. 

Occupancy in potential pika habitat in the major western North American mountains was found to be uniformly high. Among sites that have been surveyed recently, there was no discernible climate signal that discriminated between the many occupied and relatively few unoccupied sites.  

“This is a sign of a robust species,” Smith said.  

Smith said most of the studies that have raised alarms about the fate of the pika are based on a relatively small number of restricted sites at the margins of the pika’s geographic range, primarily in the Great Basin. However, a recent comprehensive study of pikas evaluating 3,250 sites in the Great Basin found pikas living in over 73% of the suitable habitat investigated. Most important, the sites currently occupied by pikas and the sites where they are no longer found were characterized by similar climatic features.  

“These results show that pikas are able to tolerate a broader set of habitat conditions than previously understood,” Smith said.

Smith’s most interesting finding is that pikas are apparently much more resilient than previously believed, allowing them to survive even at hot, low-elevation sites. Bodie California State Historic Park, the Mono Craters, Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve, Lava Beds National Monument, and the Columbia River Gorge (all hot, low-elevation sites) retain active pika populations, demonstrating the adaptive capacity and resilience of pikas. Pikas cope with warm temperatures by retreating into their cool, underground talus habitat during the hot daylight hours and augment their restricted daytime foraging with nocturnal activity.

This doesn’t mean that some pika populations have not been pushed to their limit, leading to their disappearance from some habitats. Smith’s review points out that most documented cases of local loss of pika populations have occurred on small, isolated habitat patches. 

“Due to the relatively poor ability of pikas to disperse between areas, those habitats are not likely to be recolonized, particularly in light of our warming climate,” Smith said. “In spite of the general health of pikas across their range, these losses represent a one-way street, leading to a gradual loss of some pika populations. Fortunately for pikas, their preferred talus habitat in the major mountain cordilleras is larger and more contiguous, so the overall risk to this species is low.” 

Smith's work emphasizes the importance of incorporating all aspects of a species’ behavior and ecology when considering its conservation status, and that all available data must be considered before suggesting a species is going extinct. For the American pika, the data conclusively show that rather than facing extinction, American pikas are changing their behaviors in ways that help them better withstand climate change, at least for now.

Director, Media Relations and Strategic Communications


Environmental consciousness guides new education endeavor

ASU to deliver new engineering curriculum dedicated to teaching environmentally and socially conscious engineering practices

October 13, 2020

Engineering shapes almost every facet of how humans live, putting pressure on engineers to constantly deliver new and better solutions to social and technological challenges. But what are the environmental consequences of these solutions?

Many of today’s global environmental threats are exacerbated by technologies, products, infrastructures and services engineers develop.  Lemelson grant EGR 201 students are learning how to effectively incorporate environmentally conscious engineering practices into their everyday coursework as part of a new Lemelson Foundation grant. Download Full Image

With support from the Lemelson Foundation, new research in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University will teach engineering students to avoid these unintended environmental impacts.

Academic leaders today are advocating for a shift in engineering education and are developing methods to better equip students with the proficiencies needed to effectively navigate sustainable engineering solutions and build a more environmentally conscious culture.

The Lemelson Foundation in partnership with VentureWell has developed a global initiative called Engineering for One Planet, or EOP, with the mission of accelerating environmentally and socially conscious engineering.

Motivated by the environment of innovation fostered at ASU and the capabilities it has to rapidly develop new curriculum on a large scale, the Lemelson Foundation invited The Polytechnic School, one of the six Fulton Schools at ASU, to apply for one of the grants to help pursue the initiative’s goal. Four additional educational institutions have also been selected to participate in the project.

Darshan Karwat, an assistant professor of engineering at The Polytechnic School, as well as ASU’s School for the Future of Innovation in Society of the College of Global Futures, is leading the only project-based learning grant. Karwat has launched a pilot program of the Environmentally Responsible Engineering, or ERE, framework.

The EOP initiative has the support of stakeholders in academia, industry, government and philanthropic organizations that are encouraging systemic change in engineering education across the country.

The initiative also stems from a broader demand from nonprofit organizations like the National Academy of Engineering, the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers and other organizations advocating for a reformed engineering curriculum.

Environmentally responsible engineering framework

A diagram outlining the ERE framework as part of the larger EOP initiative, which uses a multidisciplinary approach that aligns with the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals to help guide curricular changes. Image courtesy of the Lemelson Foundation.

Karwat, along with co-principal investigator Adam Carberry, an associate professor for the engineering education systems and design program at The Polytechnic School, and collaborators Ira Bennett, the associate director for research for the School for the Future of Innovation in Society, and Philip White, an associate professor in the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts, have modified the curriculum of a core course — EGR 201: Use-Inspired Design I — as a vehicle to deliver ERE content to students across multiple engineering disciplines.

“We want to use the current project-based course spine at The Polytechnic School to systematically and consistently instill the idea in all engineering students that thinking about environmental protection and responsibility is core to doing engineering well,” Karwat said.

“We are exploring how the ERE framework can be delivered to students at different points across the four-year curriculum so it hits on most, if not all, aspects of the framework,” he said.

“One of our goals with embedding the ERE framework is to instill in our students a recognition that their designs go beyond the technical specifications,” said Carberry, who has been teaching the course since 2011. “The design process should always include discussions around how a solution can potentially impact the environment, alongside other nontechnical considerations like economical, societal and cultural impacts.”

The project will be monitored and evaluated by the College Research and Evaluation Services, or CREST, at ASU. CREST has expertise in evaluating STEM education grants and can provide resources and technology to support the project.

Second-year project goals include sharing the initiative and findings with the other Fulton Schools and throughout the entire ASU community. Eventually those findings will be shared across the nation through a series of seminars and workshops. 

To accelerate curriculum modifications and take advantage of the extensive support the environmental consciousness movement has generated, these projects will rely heavily on a collaborative approach in which participants can share ideas, best practices and gain new perspectives.

“Our ever-changing world has made it that much more important to ensure that our students, the future engineering workforce, are considering the sustainability of their designs,” Carberry said. “We have grown immensely as a society in the level to which we recognize the impact our solutions can have on the world.”

Sona Patel Srinarayana

Communications specialist, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering