Rabbit relatives known as pikas beat the heat with mossy diet

Dec. 18, 2013 at 5:25 PM
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SALT LAKE CITY, Dec. 18 (UPI) -- Some rabbit relatives known as pikas, normally found in mountains, are surviving in sea-level Oregon rockslides by changing their diet, biologists say.

While a warming climate drives pikas to higher elevations or wipes them out in some mountain ranges, the animals in Oregon survive at warm sea-level temperatures by eating vast amounts of mosses, the National Science Foundation reported Wednesday.

Pikas, native to cold, alpine climates in North America, Asia and Eastern Europe, are very sensitive to heat, dying if they spend more than 2 hours above 78 degrees Fahrenheit.

The pikas in Oregon can survive hot weather by eating more moss than any other mammal, researchers said.

"Our work shows pikas can eat unusual foods like moss to persist in strange environments," University of Utah biology Professor Denise Dearing said. "It suggests that they may be more resistant to climate change than we thought."

The mossy environment in which they live helps protect them from becoming overheated, the researchers said.

"By consuming mosses that grow on the rockslides where they live, the pikas are released from foraging outside the safety and shady heat buffer of the rocks," Utah biology doctoral student Jo Varner said.

"Few herbivores consume moss because it's so nutritionally deficient," she said. "The pikas in our study actually set a new record for moss in a mammal's diet: 60 percent.

"Some fiber is good, but this is almost all fiber. Mosses are 80 percent fiber. It's a bit like eating paper."

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