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Characterizing metrics and outcomes of stress in a climate-sensitive species, the American pika, 2014

Wilkening, J.L.

University of Colorado, Boulder, CO
NWT Accession Number: NWT1913


The American pika (Ochotona princeps) is considered a sentinel species for detecting ecological effects of climate change. Pikas are declining within a large portion of their range, but previous studies have focused only on local pika extirpation as a metric of change. This approach does not take into account the role of behavioral thermoregulation and the pika's use of microhabitats to ameliorate variations in climate. Without evidence of a direct climatic impact on pikas, studies correlating pika habitat occupancy with climate metrics provide relatively weak support for projecting effects of climate change on this species. This dissertation research focuses on the physiological stress response of pikas to differences in microhabitat and microclimate. First, I developed and validated bio-assays to measure physiological stress in pikas. Second, relationships were established between pika stress and habitat characteristics associated with sub-surface ice features, which are an important component of water resources. Third, I examined effects of local climate on stress, while accounting for the influence of environmental characteristics on a frequently used stress metric (fecal CORT). Lastly, annual individual survival was analyzed in relation to two different stress metrics (fecal and plasma CORT). Research efforts resulted in the establishment of non-invasive methods for estimating stress in pikas, and also emphasize the importance of considering environmental influences on stress measurements collected non-invasively across different eco-regions. Additional results suggest that pikas may serve as a sensitive bio-indicator of hydrological change in high elevation watershed areas. Finally, pikas appear to be experiencing chronic stress, and reduced survival, in some microhabitats regardless of behavioral adaptations.

Associated Niwot LTER Researchers:

Related Field Location(s):

SaddleNiwot RidgeGreen Lakes Valley


Wilkening, J.L., (2014) Characterizing metrics and outcomes of stress in a climate-sensitive species, the American pika. University of Colorado, Boulder, CO URL:,

CU Boulder

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Cooperative Agreement #DEB-1637686. Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in the material are those of the author(s) and do not necesarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

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