Who would have ever thought we would use the words ‘rabbit’ and ‘endangered’ in the same sentence? After all, there is a reason for the expression ‘breeding like rabbits.’
In New Hampshire, the New England cottontail has been nearly wiped out due to habitat loss. These adorable little bunnies need lots of brush scrub to survive, and it’s been disappearing at a rapid rate. Snowshoe hares, white in the winter and brown in the summer, can’t keep up with the new seasonal changes caused by global warming and often stick out like a neon sign.
A tiny cousin of the rabbit however, is in even more peril.
Pikas are short-legged, hamster-sized critters with short limbs, rounded ears and short tails. They are also called rock rabbits, coneys or “whistling hares” due to their high-pitched alarm calls when diving into the burrow.
Native to cold climates, they are found in Asia, North America and parts of eastern Europe. Most species live on rocky mountain slopes with numerous crevices to shelter in, although some also construct crude burrows.
Unfortunately these little furballs have several strikes against their survival.
Human activity and warming temperatures appear to be pushing them to ever higher elevations. A study of the American pika has found that where they once typically lived at about 5,700 feet above sea level, they are now averaging higher than 8,000 feet.
They are running out of room, and they may soon be the first species in the lower 48 states to get federal endangered species protection primarily because of the effects of climate change. The polar bear is already listed because of global warming, and pikas could be next.
As mountain dwellers, pikas have evolved survival adaptations over thousands of years for cooler alpine conditions. They have dense fur, slow reproduction and a thermal regulation system that doesn’t do well when temperatures get above 75 degrees. Climate change is also interacting with habitat loss, overgrazing and the ever present human disturbance.
Fortunately not all pikas seem to be in danger. Connie Millar, an alpine ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service, spends much of her research time in the Sierra Nevada mountains. Over the last two years, she found only 2% of pika nest sites were abandoned, and in some places they were showing up at lower-than-expected elevations.
Climate change won’t likely have uniform effects, but parts of the western USA are expected to produce some of the most significant temperature changes in the country.
There is a biological reason for the rapid breeding of the rabbit family. Their prolific populations are the basis for food chains all over the world. If the bunnies disappear, so too do the predators that rely on them. In Spain, when disease wiped out the rabbit population, the Iberian lynx population dropped drastically, and there are currently less than 100 of these beautiful cats left.
Mountain predators the world over, both animal and bird, rely heavily on healthy rabbit & pika populations. I don’t want to think what would happen to the entire ecosystem if the bunnies were gone.