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New app designed to monitor the American Pika in Colorado

Pika population declines have been documented in several locations across the intermountain west, but scientists still need more information
Pikas are small mammals that live at high altitudes.


With the winter snowpack gone, hikers are once again pouring into Colorado’s high peaks, and this year, some of them will come back with important data on how the cutest animal in Colorado, the American pika.

This is the first summer in which hikers are using Pika Patrol, an innovative new mobile app, to track observations and monitor populations of climate-sensitive American pika.  

This first-of-its-kind app for the at-risk species will be used by the roughly 650 volunteers affiliated with the Colorado Pika Project, but it also opens the door for hikers, residents, and visitors to easily record pika observations with their smartphones.

Through Pika Patrol, the project expects to expand the area where it is studying this charismatic mountain dweller. The Colorado Pika Project is an initiative led by Rocky Mountain Wild and Denver Zoo that engages volunteers to study the impacts of climate change on the American pika in Colorado.

Pikas, close relatives of rabbits, are adorable small mammals that live at high altitudes in Colorado and across the West. Despite thriving in some of the harshest environments in the state, pikas in some areas may be vulnerable to climate change as temperatures rise and snowpack melts earlier across the intermountain west.

“Each summer, thousands of hikers see pikas dashing around rocky slopes above the tree line,” said Megan Mueller, conservation biologist at Rocky Mountain Wild. “With Pika Patrol, there is now a simple way for them to record these pika sightings and share their observations with scientists.”

“Pika Patrol will really empower hikers to help scientists understand how pikas are coping with climate change in our state,” said Dr. Johanna Varner, a biology professor and American pika expert at Colorado Mesa University. “The app makes it really easy for people to submit photos and sound recordings with their observations, which are really powerful data.”

The app was designed to be easy to use. All you need to participate is a mobile device.

“Colorado Pika Project community scientists have been studying pikas at our long-term monitoring site for over a decade, but they had to be trained in a pretty rigorous scientific protocol. Now, all you need to use Pika Patrol is a smartphone,” said Alex Wells, community conservation coordinator at Denver Zoo. “Even if you’ve never seen a pika before, the app will teach you to identify them by sight, calls, haypiles, and scat.”

Volunteers who tested the app in 2022 are eager to get out and start using it in the field this fall.

"I am really excited about the Pika Patrol app,” said Lea Linse, a community scientist volunteer with the Colorado Pika Project. “It is so important that we understand how climate change is affecting our mountain ecosystems, and collecting data on our beloved pikas is a key part of that research. Plus, it is really fun to explore new trails with a purpose, learn about the pikas, and hang out in beautiful places with these adorable critters."

And documenting pikas is just the start. The app also includes a carbon offset program, the Colorado Carbon Offset Parntership, which will connect users with opportunities to take direct action to protect pikas and their habitat.

“Pika Patrol shows you how to offset the carbon emissions from your drive through a donation to the Colorado Carbon Offset Partnership,” said Dr. Nicole Rosmarino, founder and the previous executive director of the Southern Plains Land Trust. “These donations directly preserve grasslands in Colorado that sequester carbon, which helps pikas cope with climate change and creates a permanent refuge for prairie wildlife.”

Pika Patrol is available for free in the Google Play and Apple App Stores. Interested users can also visit the Pika Patrol webpage to learn more about the app.

Additional Background:

Everyone knows that pikas are undeniably cute, but few know they are also tough and industrious. They survive extreme alpine winters without access to fresh food, so they must work hard all summer collecting grasses and flowers to store for a winter food store.

But because pikas are fine-tuned to survive extreme alpine winters, they may be especially vulnerable to the effects of a warming climate. Pika population declines and local extinctions have been documented in several locations across the intermountain west, but scientists still need more information about how Colorado’s pika populations are faring.

Pika Patrol is part of the Colorado Pika Project, a joint initiative of Rocky Mountain Wild and the Denver Zoo. The Colorado Carbon Offset Partnership is a joint initiative of Rocky Mountain Wild, the Colorado Pika Project, and the Southern Plains Land Trust.