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Radiocarbon dating of American pika fecal pellets provides insights into population extirpations and climate refugia



Publication type:

Scientific Journal (JRNL)

Primary Station(s):

Pacific Southwest Research Station


Ecological Applications. 24(7): 1748–1768


The American pika (Ochotona princeps) has become a species of concern for its sensitivity to warm temperatures and potential vulnerability to global warming. We explored the value of radiocarbon dating of fecal pellets to address questions of population persistence and timing of site extirpation. Carbon was extracted from pellets collected at 43 locations in the western Great Basin, USA, including three known occupied sites and 40 sites of uncertain status at range margins or where previous studies indicated the species is vulnerable. We resolved calibrated dates with high precision (within several years), most of which fell in the period of the mid-late 20th century bomb curve. The two-sided nature of the bomb curve renders far- and near-side dates of equal probability, which are separated by one to four decades. We document methods for narrowing resolution to one age range, including stratigraphic analysis of vegetation collected from pika haypiles. No evidence was found for biases in atmospheric 14C levels due to fossil-derived or industrial CO2 contamination. Radiocarbon dating indicated that pellets can persist for .59 years; known occupied sites resolved contemporary dates. Using combined evidence from field observations and radiocarbon dating, and the Bodie Mountains as an example, we propose a historical biogeographic scenario for pikas in minor Great Basin mountain ranges adjacent to major cordillera, wherein historical climate variability led to cycles of extirpation and recolonization during alternating cool and warm centuries. Using this model to inform future dynamics for small ranges in biogeographic settings similar to the Bodie Mountains in California, extirpation of pikas appears highly likely under directional warming trends projected for the next century, even while populations in extensive cordillera (e.g., Sierra Nevada, Rocky Mountains, Cascade Range) are likely to remain viable due to extensive, diverse habitat and high connectivity.


Millar, C.I.; Heckman, K.; Swanston, C.; Schmidt, K.; Westfall, R.D.; Delany, D.L. 2014. Radiocarbon dating of American pika fecal pellets provides insights into population extirpations and climate refugia. Ecological Applications. 24(7): 1748–1768.

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