Citizen Science

Pika Pika: A Citizen Science Project

April 22, 2014

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A Pika gathering huckleberry leaves for winter food, Elkhorn Wildlife Area. Photo by Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife through a Creative Commons license.

What is Pika Project?

Are you an avid hiker? Want to take great pictures of adorable creatures and contribute to science while you enjoy nature?

Get outside and look for some pikas with Pika Project.

First, a bit about pikas:  They’re the smallest relatives of the rabbit. And you could even argue that pikas are cuter than bunnies . . . and they might have given Pikachu its name.

They live in alpine and subalpine mountain ranges, often hiding on slopes full of rocky debris. They live up high because they need cold temperatures to survive.

Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation runs Pika Project and other citizen science projects to give outdoor enthusiasts an opportunity to make a difference in science and conservation.

“Using information that we are already unofficially gathering and knowing that what we contribute is useful is very rewarding,” says John Soltys, who volunteers for pika project along with his daughters.

Together they have learned cool things about pikas, including that they eat their own poop. (They do this to get the most nutrition out of their food).

Be a citizen scientist with Pika Project and help them gather data on this elusive species.

Why is it important?

Since pikas need to stay cool (they can die from temperatures of 78 °F or over), they will be one of the first species affected by climate change and there are already signs that they are changing their behavior.

A species of great concern is the American pika, found in the western United States and southwestern Canada.

Pika Project is especially interested in pictures from California, but it is an international project and accepts pictures of wild pikas wherever they live.

In order to find out where they are, where they might move, and where they could become regionally extinct scientists need your help.

And it’s not just about pikas, even though they’re the focus of the study. Their reactions and movements are a preview of what will happen to other wildlife as the climate continues to change.

John, Clara, and Lilly Soltys hiking in Mount Rainier National Park. Used with permission.
John, Clara, and Lilly Soltys hiking in Mount Rainier National Park. Used with permission.

Beyond the scientific data gathered, Pika Project is a fantastic way to get kids outdoors and interested in nature. And kids need more nature.

“As we learn more we can identify their dens and areas they live in. In the past, I never would have recognized. Kids are really, really interested in pikas,” says Soltys.

“Sitting in one place and concentrating like that is unusual for my daughter. Seeing her that interested is very cool. We had given up for the day and as we left we saw one around the corner. He just sat there and let us take pictures.”

How do you get involved?

This project is best for people who live near pika habitat, but they accept one-time entries. If you take photos of pikas while on vacation, send them in. Pikas are found in a number of  popular Rocky Mountain national parks, like Yellowstone and Glacier, as well as national forests and even ski resorts.

The steps necessary to participate are easy:

  • Sign-up for Pika Project.
  • Find an area that looks like good pika habitat or, find out where others have seen pikas, go there and wait.
  • Take digital pictures of pikas, the straw piles that they build to eat over the winter, and, yes, even the urine stains that they leave behind on rocks.
  • Send them in to Pika Project online with information about where and when the photo was taken.

If you have a smart phone, use iNaturalist to make the process even easier. Take the picture in iNaturalist and it will do the geotagging and time stamping for you.

“Take out the phone, take a picture, and the tool pretty much does the rest,” according to Soltys.

Participate in Pika Project on your own schedule, “There’s no pressure to do it in a particular time frame. If we’re out and we see a pika, we take the picture and send it in when we get back,” Soltys adds.

If you’re out hiking or planning a vacation in the mountains, give Pika Project a try and help scientists understand how pikas are reacting to climate change.

Lisa Feldkamp

Lisa loves all things citizen science and enjoys learning about everything that goes on four legs, two wings or fins - she even finds six and eight-legged critters fascinating at a safe distance. She has a PhD in Classical Literature and Languages from the University of Wisconsin - Madison and enjoys reading Greek and Roman literature or talking about mythology in her spare time. More from Lisa

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  1. Great idea to help the little pikas while we do our favorite thing – hike. We take our 5-1/2 year to Glacier every year and this will be a good activity to do while hiking.