Ask a fourth grader about what they have been studying, and you might not expect to hear, “The pika!” What is a pika? These students will be glad you asked. They know more than most people about these cute animals. And they were excited to learn more about pikas from Amanda Greenvoss with Cascades Pika Watch. Greenvoss came to speak to students at Union Ridge Elementary about her work with pikas—and how the students could help.
Pikas are small mammals “about the size of a baked potato,” Greenvoss told the students. At first glance, they resemble a mouse, but they are actually related to rabbits. Greenvoss showed the students a picture of a pika’s face in profile. “Cover their ears, and their face looks more like a rabbit. They just have shorter ears.”
Students made posters about the pika, with drawings and detailed information.
Pikas usually live in cold, rocky, mountainous terrain, but surprisingly, there is a large group of pikas that inhabit the Columbia Gorge. “These pikas are weird,” Greenvoss said. There’s no real explanation for where this group of pikas came from, why they chose to live so much closer to sea level, or even how they survive when their bodies are adapted for a very different environment. But not only are they surviving in the Columbia Gorge, they are thriving. They even survived the destruction of a large part of their habitat in the Eagle Creek fire of 2017, hiding deep in their underground burrows.
Because this group of pikas is such an anomaly, it makes for great research. Greenvoss explained that the Cascades Pika Watch has many “citizen scientist” volunteers who help locate and map pika populations in Oregon. They can watch and listen for pikas as they hike trails, and they also monitor a group of sites in and around the Columbia River Gorge. With so many more eyes watching for pikas, biologists get better data to study them. Greenvoss explained that there are many families that have joined the Cascades Pika Watch; with just one training, they can turn their family hikes into a way to help scientific research.
Amanda Greenvoss and the students discuss the impact of climate change on the pika's environment.
Many of the students hoped their families would join in the volunteer group. They have spent many hours researching pikas and are big fans of the cute animals. The walls of the hallways near their classroom are decorated with poster after poster about pikas, with drawings and detailed information about the pika’s preferred environment, characteristics, and behavior, as well as how they have been impacted by climate change.
Teacher Kim Stenbak started the pika research project at Union Ridge Elementary. Inspired by a teaching outline by ESD 112 (Educational Service District 112), an agency that serves schools throughout the region, she realized this was a great way to get students involved in learning, not just about the pika, but also about the environment and how humans have affected their survival. She hopes that in the future, these students will be active in educating others about the pika and helping preserve their environment.
Interested in joining the Cascades Pika Watch citizen scientists to watch and listen for pikas? Sign up at oregonzoo.org/pikawatch