Wildlife Wednesday: what pikas — and their poop — can teach us about climate change

Plus: orcas are eating a toxic diet, southern birds are moving in on northern birds thanks to climate change, North Atlantic right whale population is steadying, and red swamp crayfish are showing up unwanted in Nova Scotia

The pika is known as an indicator species for climate change impacts. (Photo: Jon LeVasseur/NPS Climate Change Response [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 DEED])
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Pika-poo! With apologies to the internet’s favourite Pokémon, the headlines write themselves. But the focus here is on the real-life American pika, that cute little rodent that lives in rock fields and mountainous grasslands above the treeline in B.C. and Alberta. Researchers from UBC Okanagan have been collecting its poop — and learning a thing or two about climate change in the process.

The pika, which is in decline across its range, is known as an indicator species for climate change impacts so researchers are keen to figure out what, exactly, is causing their decline. To do so in a non-invasive way, they’re collecting pika poop and analysing the eDNA. (Simply explained, every living organism sheds cells into the environment, leaving behind genetic fingerprints. Analysing genetic material in the pikas’ scat allows researchers to better understand everything from family relationships to food webs.)

The goal is to use this poop-fuelled genetic monitoring to improve our understanding of the ecological consequences of rapid environmental change — and help the pika thrive again.

Unhealthy eating

Photo caption: Orcas are highly intelligent mammals as well as extremely fast swimmers that can reach speeds of up to 54 kilometres an hour. (Photo: Tomis Filipovic/Can Geo Photo Club)
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Orcas are the most widely distributed mammals on the planet, occupying every ocean. However, these magnificent mammals are facing a myriad of threats, from prey depletion, disturbances from vessel traffic and, of course, chemical contaminants.

In an effort to better understand the troubling reality these apex predators face in relation to contaminants, a new study published in Environmental Science & Technology has examined how orcas’ toxic diets are impacting certain populations exposed to high levels of POPs (persistent organic pollutants).

Known as “forever chemicals,” POPs have a long-lasting nature that disrupts orca immune and hormonal systems, affecting their ability to reproduce and even causes to cancer. These chemicals, been mass-produced for industries like agriculture, have been shown to accumulate in living organisms and persist in environments. These chemicals build up through biomagnification, advancing up the food web and impacting dolphins and whales the most.

With a particular focus on orcas in the North Atlantic, the study looked at the potential impact of diet preferences on orca health and found that orcas who fed primarily on fish tended to have lower contaminant levels compared to those whose diets focused on marine mammals. This is because the chemicals bind to fats and increase in concentration as they move up the food web. Therefore, mammals with more fat may be experiencing a larger build-up of chemicals in their system.

In response to the study’s overall findings, researchers are suggesting urgent action is needed to protect North Atlantic orcas and their ecosystems. This includes steps for proper chemical disposal, targeted conservation efforts and preventing the release of potentially more harmful contaminants, among other suggestions.


There goes the neighbourhood 

Northern species such as the Lapland longspur will face challenges as the climate warms and the habitat within protected areas changes. (Photo: Gregory "Slobirdr" Smith/Wikimedia Commons [CC BY-SA 2.0 DEED]
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Looks like climate change may favour southerners — at least when it comes to birds. A study looking at protected areas in Canada, has determined that the make-up of the bird communities inside and outside protected areas are beginning to resemble each other as a result of climate change. 

The University of Helsinki study, which looked at data on bird communities in Canada between 1997 and 2019, found that southern species are increasing abundance, while northern species are on the decline.

So while protected areas geared toward the conservation of northern species such as the Lapland longspur remain important, researchers noted that conservationists will likely face additional challenges to ensure that cold-dwelling bird species continue to thrive as the climate warms and the habitat within protected areas changes.

As the environment warms, bird counts found southern species such as the grass wren and the northern cardinal were moving north in search of a suitable climate. “This indicates that protected areas, in particular, are highly significant for the northern spread of southern species.

However, protected areas cannot entirely guarantee protection for declining northern species,” said researcher Leena Hintsanen in the Science Daily article reporting the study. 

Steady as she goes

The population of critically endangered North Atlantic right whales appears to have levelled off after a decade of harsh decline. (Photo: NOAA [CC BY 2.0 DEED])
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It’s been a long, long time since there was last good news to report on North Atlantic right whales. But, according to updated data released by scientists in the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium, the population of critically endangered North Atlantic right whales appears to have levelled off after a decade of harsh decline.

This years annual population estimate by the consortium for 2022 is 356, and the 2021 estimate has been recalculated to 365 due to the number of calves born that year. The early-to-mid 2010s saw population estimates reach close to 500 whales, with that number falling to 356 by 2020.

While this slowing down of the decline is positive news, the whales still face myriad dangers due to ship strikes and fishing gear entanglement. It’s estimated that 32 human-caused injuries to right whales occurred in 2023. 

However, there have been no North Atlantic right whale deaths in Canada since 2019. This suggests rules in place since 2019 that cause sightings to trigger strict fishery closures are making a difference. 

The first wave



Red swamp crayfish have been spotted in Canada for the first time. (Photo: Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area/Flickr [Public Domain])
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What is believed to be the first confirmed detection in Canada of the red swamp crayfish has set off alarm bells at the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

Known as the crawdad in Louisiana cuisine, the red swamp crayfish is an invasive species native to the southern United States. First found by an angler close to Halifax in Three Mile Lake near Lower Sackville, N.S., in 2022, the small crustaceans are known to have severe impacts on ecosystems. They carry parasites, compete for space and food, eat fish eggs and burrow into habitats not accustomed to their presence. 

This summer, 70 more red swamp crayfish were trapped, a sign they have survived the winter.

The Department is asking the public to report any that are found and not to move them.

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