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