From: ENN Staff
Published December 19, 2013 09:08 AM

Mountain Pikas Eat Moss to Survive Climate Changes

Pikas are small mammals closely related to rabbits and hares that are native to cold, alpine climates in North America, Asia and Eastern Europe.

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Pikas are very sensitive to heat, dying if they spend more than two hours above 78 degrees Fahrenheit, so cold climate is important to their survival.

And sadly, as increasing temperatures continue to play a role in our changing climate, pikas have gone extinct in some mountain ranges and moved to higher peaks in others in the American West.

However, researchers have also discovered pikas living in rockslides near sea level in Oregon. But how is this species surviving in these warmer gorge areas when they are dependent on colder weather? Well, biologists claim pikas survive hot weather simply by eating moss.

"Pikas eat foods like moss to persist in warming environments," says biologist Denise Dearing of the University of Utah, co-author of a new paper reporting the results. 

Jo Varner, also a biologist at the University of Utah and a paper co-author, says that although "some fiber is good, moss is 80 percent fiber. It's a bit like eating paper.

"By consuming mosses that grow on the rockslides where they live, the pikas don't have to forage outside the shady heat-buffer of the rocks.

"Few herbivores consume moss because it's so nutritionally deficient. These pikas set a new record for moss in a mammal's diet: 60 percent."

Pikas' extensive moss-eating "suggests that they may be more resistant to climate change than we thought," says Dearing.

Like rabbits and hares, pikas produce a fraction of their feces in the form of caecal pellets, and reingest them to gain nutrition.

"Pikas and rabbits--and their gut microbes--are the ultimate recycling factory," Dearing says. "They ingest low-quality food over and over again, and turn it into high-quality protein and energy. The end product is six times more nutritious than the moss" that started it all.

The paper is published online this week in the Journal of Mammalogy.

Read more at the National Science Foundation.

Pika image via Shutterstock.

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