Mountain pikas, relatives of rabbits, survive at warm sea-level temperatures by eating mosses

A small mammal known as a pika peers out from behind thick moss in Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge.

In some mountain ranges, Earth’s warming climate drives rabbit relatives known as pikas to higher elevations–or wipes them out.

But biologists discovered that pikas living in rockslides near sea level in Oregon can survive hot weather 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. The paper is published online today in the Journal of Mammalogy.

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.

The biologists, whose research was funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), believe they know why.

Like rabbits and hares, pikas produce a fraction of their feces in the form of caecal (pronounced see-cull) pellets, and reingest them to gain nutrition.

Read the full story here.

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About jensera

Jennifer Harrington is a Toronto-based illustrator, writer and graphic designer. She illustrated the best-selling children’s book series 'A Moose in a Maple Tree,' which includes the titles 'A Moose in a Maple Tree,' 'The Night Before a Canadian Christmas' and 'Canadian Jingle Bells.' She is also the owner of JSH Graphics, a boutique graphic design agency that specializes in print and web advertising. With her latest project, Eco Books 4 Kids, Jennifer has partnered with illustrator Michael Arnott to create a series of ecologically-themed ebooks for children. Her next book, 'Spirit Bear,' is due for release in the Summer of 2013. Jennifer offers two different school presentations for her 'Moose in a Maple Tree' collection, an illustration demonstration and a Christmas concert series, which can be booked at www.amooseinamapletree.com. She will be taking bookings for school readings of 'Spirit Bear' beginning in October 2013.

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