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048 Pikas struggling with warming climates, Neanderthal medicine, and mining gravel river beds

This week I talk about the tiny pika, one of the most amazing mountain animals and how it is threatened by warming climates. I also discuss some ancient Neanderthal medicine and how it ties to Canada’s First Nations and finally, I look at the implications of mining gravel within the flow of the many gravel bed rivers in the mountains


Pika in a time of Climate Change

The Rocky Mountains are known around the world as a great place to spot wildlife.  Although most visitors to the area are looking for iconic animals like elk, bighorn sheep and bears, some of our tinier residents can be equally exciting.

One of the more fascinating alpine animals is the pika.  If you’ve never seen a pika —relax, you’re not alone.  I remember my first sighting.  I was nearing the summit of Nigel Pass in Banff Park, when all of a sudden I started hearing some strange sounds.  They could only be described as a sort of bleating ‘Eeenk’.

I would have quickly discounted them as a ground squirrel or marmot had they not come from the middle of a large, seemingly lifeless rock slide.  Somewhere within this maze of boulders was an invisible animal.

The problem was only compounded when I moved in for a closer look.  That single ‘Eeenk’ suddenly became several —I was surrounded.  I assured myself that I wasn’t going crazy and became determined to discover the maker of these strange noises.

As I watched and listened, I was astounded at how the sound of a single call seemed to come from all directions—almost like a ventriloquist throwing his voice.  This must work very well to confuse predators; after all, it confused me.  After about ten minutes, I resigned to the fact that I wasn’t going to find my strange beast.

I struggled on with my pack, and was about to continue down the trail when a flash of movement caught my eye.  About thirty metres away was a small gray animal.  It resembled a guinea pig and blended in so well with the limestone that I almost lost it in the rocks.  Out came the binoculars for a closer look.   It was hunched on a rock and I could see that it was about 20 cm long with short rounded ears and no visible tail.

When I finally returned home to my field guides, I flipped through the pages until, right after the rabbits, I found him.  He was a pika and was part of the order Lagomorpha.  This meant that they weren’t rodents, as I had suspected, but were more closely related to the snowshoe hare (who is also a member of this group).

Unlike most other small members of the alpine community, the pika does not hibernate. It spends most of the summer months collecting plants and building large hay piles (some of which may be as large as a bushel) and leaving them to season, much like a farmer leaving out his bales.  It will be these stores that will get it through the eight or nine months of winter.

Often, it must leave the security of its rock or talus slope in order to collect these plants.  Recognizing its vulnerability, it spends as little time in the meadow as possible.  Quickly gathering plants, it places them cross-ways in its mouth and returns to the talus.

Being related to hares and rabbits makes the pika a hind gut fermenter. Like all herbivores, the digestion of cellulose is done by bacteria in the gut. Unlike animals like elk, moose and deer, which sport a four-chambered digestive system means that the fermentation process takes place prior to reaching the actual stomach. This also means that they need to essentially cough up their partly digested meals and re-chew them to help further break them down and allow for additional digestion.

Unfortunately for animals like snowshoe hares and pikas, the fermentation process takes place beyond the stomach, in the Cecum. They will also have an intestinal tract that can be up to 13 times the length of their body.

Once the food passes through the stomach, the fermentation takes place in the cecum and the large intestine before being coated with mucus and being excreted. These are referred to as cecotropes and are eaten again to allow the food to pass through the digestive system a second time to absorb additional nutrients. After this second passing, so to speak, they produce the hard pellets that we would normally associate with animals like rabbits, hares and pikas.

Regardless of which system vegetarians have to deal with, for me, I’m just happy to be a carnivore and not need to chew my cud or my – you know what. Cellulose be damned – give me a juicy steak!

Pikas are very carefully tied to the environmental conditions in their homes. They have a fairly high body temperature (around 40 C) and a rise of just a few degrees can be fatal.  This narrow range forces them to live in cooler areas, usually at elevations above 2000 metres.

The prospect of warming climates and changing weather patterns is likely to have some very detrimental impacts on an animals like the pika. In fact, research done in the Yukon in 2011 by Dr David Hik of the University of Alberta looked at populations of collared pika in Kluane National Park, in the Yukon. The collared pika is closely related to the American pika that is so common through the Canadian Rockies and has been experiencing some of these climate related challenges.

The fact that pikas don’t hibernate means that they rely on several things to make it through the winter, as well as to have reproductive successes. Believe it or not, they need good snowpacks. Snow is a blanket. It never gets cold beneath the snow. If you doubt this, just ask anyone who has spent a night in an igloo or snow cave.

For pikas, warm winters with little snow pack means population declines. The cold is able to penetrate into their subnivean or under the snow world leading to population declines.

In the Alberta Rockies, another study done by the Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute in 2014 found that the American pika was the second most vulnerable animal.

Pika live on mountaintops. This means that their homes are isolated from populations on adjacent mountaintops. They can’t simply migrate into new habitats when the conditions in their home range change in such a way that it’s no longer suitable.

As an example, if you think about Lake Louise. Pika found around Lake Agnes cannot simply get to Mount Fairview, even though it is just on the other side of Lake Louise. To do so would involve a long migration into low elevation habitats prior to making their way up to the alpine zone of Mount Fairview.

Pika live in the alpine because they cannot tolerate the warmer temperatures in the lower, warmer subalpine. Pikas are limited to survive in the habitats they have…as the saying goes: “there’s no place like home”. Unfortunately for them, it’s also the only place that’s home.  They may be able to see a new potential home, but they won’t be able to get there.

Despite this, a report by Chris Shank entitled: Understanding and Respecting the Effects of Climate Change on Alberta’s Biodiversity indicated that they may not be at risk in the near future, at least in Alberta.

This belief comes with many conditions, unfortunately some of them requiring a reduction in greenhouse gases. With the current environmental situation south of our border, as well as Canada’s slow pace of change, this seems unlikely to occur.

It also assumes that snow packs continue to be sufficient to support strong pika populations, that meadow plant populations remain consistent, that summer temperatures remain cool enough, and that loose rock, or talus slopes, that the pika call home also remain constant.

With warming climates, the forests of the subalpine are beginning to migrate upwards into the alpine. The alpine is a finite habitat. Eventually, you run out of mountain.

As long as meadows migrate upwards along with forests, and snow packs migrate uphill as well, and so on, our pikas may be able to stick around.

While pikas are on the frying pan locally, they are slipping into the fire in more southerly populations.

The further south you go, climate changes are resulting in the two things that make it difficult for pikas to survive – reduced snow packs and an upward migration of the subalpine.

If you travel south to California’s Sierra Nevada mountains, pikas have completely disappeared from a 425 km2 portion of their range. Currently this is the largest area of local extinction, or extirpation, so far recorded.

In California, the problem has been warmer summer temperatures, resulting in these very heat sensitive pikas overheating. When it’s too hot, the pikas seek the shade. When they are in the shade, they’re not collecting plants to add to their winter larder.

While pika do still exist in areas adjacent to this study, forecasts predict a drop of 97% in pika numbers around Lake Tahoe by 2050.

There is one light at the end of this very dark tunnel. For pika, there are very few options in a world of warming climates and reduced snow packs: move, adapt, acclimate, or die! In a recent study in Frontiers of Ecology and the Environment, biologists looked at over 200 studies looking into how amphibians, birds, fish, invertebrates, mammals and reptiles responded to warming climates.

Behavioural responses can occur in much shorter time spans then physiological ones.

According to this study, some individual pika populations have managed to adapt to changes by varying their foraging habits, calling new environments home, and finding novel ways to prevent overheating.

Pika are found over a huge territory, but individuals don’t tent do move more than a kilometre from the rock pile that they were born.

Lack of movement means that individual populations remain isolated from each other, meaning each population may adapt differing strategies to dealing with warming temperatures.

Some have sought out new micro-environments, taking advantage of deadfall logs, logging debris and forests. If the location is cool enough in the summer, and the snow pack deep enough, they may be able to survive.

Some isolated populations in the Columbia River Gorge have managed to obtain as much as 63% of their calories from mosses, which are plentiful both winter and summer. This allows them to be less rigorous in terms of building haypiles during the summer months.

Behavioural flexibility may be the catchword for the 21st century. If plants, animals, and birds cannot adapt physiologically to the rapid changes in there ranges then behavioural adaptation is their only option.

At least a few populations of pika are taking the challenge and beating the odds. I don’t ever want to find myself wandering the loose rock talus slopes of the mountains in summer and not be challenged to find these most perfectly camouflaged critters.

Ancient Aspirin

I spend a lot of time showing visitors to the mountains signs of animals recorded in the landscape and plant life. Most animals are not designed to be seen. They’re designed to blend into the mountain landscape and so, to untrained eyes, they often remain invisible.

One thing they can’t hide though is the signs that they leave behind. This may be tracks, scats, bits of hair, or even signs of feeding.

If you take a look at any trembling aspen tree in the central Rockies and you’ll notice that the lower portions of the trunk are heavily scarred. This is due to the fact that the scarring represents mouth level for an elk standing on snow.

During the lean winter months, aspen bark is a famine food for elk and they’ll peel strips of bark off the lower portions of the trunk.

If you look higher up the trunk, you may get a surprise. Sometimes you can find additional marks ascending the trunk, and upon closer inspection, you may find claw marks from a black bear or two that climbed the tree in previous years.

Aspen and poplar bark is very easily scarred. Once a bear climbs the tree, the tree will bear the scars for the rest of its life. Once you find a bear-climbed aspen, you’ll take special notice as you wander the mountain landscapes looking for additional trees with similar scars.

Looking for animal signs helps to make us more aware of the wildlife that is around us but often hidden from view.

Our first nations also used the bark of the aspen tree. They would use the inner bark as a medicine, and they would take that for everything from headaches to tummy aches. When we non-natives arrived on the landscape, we scoffed at their heathen witch doctor medicine – heck, they didn’t even know what it was good for. They took it for everything.

Well today we know that the bark of aspen trees, and its relatives in the willow family, contain a chemical called Salicylic Acid. To us non- natives, we refer to this chemical as aspirin. They were taking it long before we ever rediscovered its medical magic.

Modern aspirin can be traced back to Edward Stone, an 18th century clergyman who wrote that a powdered mixture of willow bark helped 50 patients with malaria like diseases as well as other illnesses.

The modern aspirin we use can be traced back to 1899 when Felix Hoffmann, a chemist at Bayer in Germany used acetylsalicylic acid to help treat his father’s rheumatism.

I’ve been telling my guests that first nations have used it for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years before modern medicine caught on.

Willow bark was taken by ancient Egyptians to treat aches and pains and even the great Greek physician Hippocrates mentioned its use.

Well a new study takes its use way back, and I mean waaaaaaay back – to several Neanderthal skeletons dated from between 42,000 and 50,000 years ago.

As it turns out, Neanderthals didn’t have great dental hygiene. For archaeologists, this has always been good news. In time, plaque accumulating on teeth will harden into something called calculus, a hard surface made up of minerals and the remains of bacteria along with other microorganisms.

Calculus can accumulate, layer upon layer, offering a time capsule of Neanderthal diets. Previous studies of Neanderthal teeth showed that humans and Neanderthals interbred. They also showed that localized populations dined on dramatically different menus. Some were Ward friendly with a high meat diet including animals like reindeer, woolly mammoths and woolly rhinoceros, while others dined at restaurants that I would never frequent – offering a mostly plant based menu.

Recently a group of scientists analyzed the DNA in the calculus of four European Neanderthals. Two were from Belgium, and two from Spain. They varied in age from 42,000 to 50,000 years old.

The tests confirmed that the Belgian Neanderthal were my kind of cave men – dining mostly on woolly rhinoceros, wild sheep, and wild mushrooms. The Spanish Neanderthal were more vegan, eating primarily pine nuts, moss, mushrooms and tree bark.

However the most interesting result came from one of the skulls from El Sidrón cave in Spain. His teeth showed that he had signs of salicylic acid. Now this was a sickly Neanderthal. He had dental abscesses and DNA analysis showed that he would have suffered from severe diarrhea from intestinal parasites.

If he only had something stronger, like penicillin! This miracle drug was only discovered accidentally in September of 1928 by Dr. Alexander Fleming. After returning from vacation he encountered a messy lab and the mold Penicillium notatum had contaminated some of his petri dishes. While the rest is history, it’s the prehistory that is fascinating in terms of this story.

This same 48,000 year old Neanderthal had traces of Penicillim mold. This means that hominids that predate humans were taking versions of Penicillin at least 48,000 years ago, and likely much longer.

This story is a combination of daily guiding meeting podcast curiosity. It’s common knowledge in local guiding literature that our First Nations used aspen bark as medicine. However, had I not started this podcast, I wouldn’t have been on the constant quest for new scientific studies to share with listeners like you.

Aspirin and Penicillin are usually considered “modern” medicines, but this one skull from a cave in Spain has helped us to realize that everything new is old again!

Mining our Rivers

Way back in episode 15, I talked about the importance of gravel bed rivers in the Canadian Rockies. You can listen to the episode at It’s a really cool story and it’s worth checking out the show notes or taking a listen prior to continuing this episode if you’d like to get the background material.

Recent studies by Dr. Richard Hauer, a professor at the University of Montana, have focused on the unique ecology of gravel bed rivers in the Rocky Mountains. Hauer recognized that streams in mountain valleys are NOT limited to the narrow channel at the bottom of wide U-shaped glacial valleys.

In fact, the actual channel of the river extends from valley bottom to valley bottom, with water percolating across the valley through the gravels. Over millennia, the river has been moving back and forth across its valley, eroding here and depositing sediments there, but never staying the same.

If you could take an x-ray of the valley bottom, you would see a mosaic of sediments including cobbles, gravels and finer sediments.

Above ground, the valley shows various levels of succession with flowing channels, ponds, old and new channels, dry gravel beds and vegetation varying from mountain avens flowers to old growth spruce.

Water though, does not see these boundaries, and flows from one side of the valley to the other, quietly flowing between the cobbles and other sediments, allowing for an entire ecosystem of aquatic life to persist far away from today’s river channel.

The mountain ecology around us has been built by 10,000 or more years of rivers changing, migrating, eroding and depositing. It’s this change that is the dynamic lifeblood of the river valley ecosystem

Now what might happen if you decide to mine that gravel-bed river? If we accept that a gravel-bed river IS really an entire valley and not just a river, then the consequences of disrupting any part of that ecosystem can be significant.

In a story in Alberta Views Magazine, former Banff Park Superintendant Kevin Van Tighem talks about a well drilled a kilometre away from the Flathead River in Montana. It wasn’t surprising that it produced beautifully clean water, but what was surprising was that it also produced stoneflies. These aquatic insects are found in fast-flowing mountain streams, but they were not expected this far from the river.

Well as Dr. Hauer has shown, rivers are not a channel, but a valley-wide ecosystem. The stoneflies lived in the gravels, a long way from the active channel.

So let’s take a more detailed look at the Bow River Valley as an example. The Bow River occupies just a narrow ribbon in the centre of the valley. On either side, the valley stretches from Silvertip to Quarry Lake.

Is the river just the river? Not at all. The river is the valley. Anything we do to the gravels of the valley will affect the river itself. In fact, there’s far more water in the gravel then there is in the river channel.

Just because it looks like land, it doesn’t mean that it IS land. Unfortunately in Alberta, gravel is a commodity. As far as industry is concerned, gravel is known as “aggregate” and it is a hugely valuable commodity. Gravel mining companies employ lobbyists who extol the benefits of cheap gravel to ill-informed politicians, who look at campaign donations, and, well you get the story.

According to Van Tieghen’s article, prior to 2011, Alberta regulators rarely approved gravel mines on floodplains, however the provincial Conservatives approved the Alberta Surface Water Body Aggregate Policy in January of 2011. This new policy signaled open season on gravel pit mining in the province.

The floods of 2013 really helped to bring the folly of gravel pit mining to the forefront. Water flows, it’s unrelenting and continuous. Add additional flow to the channel, and water will also percolate throughout the entire gravel river ecosystem.

Three common problems that gravel-river mines cause include depletion of aquifers, losses to fishery, and in particular, “pit capture”. If you dig a gravel pit near to a gravel river channel, the river will tend to be drawn towards the gravel pit with the potential of essentially ‘capturing’ the pit.

This can end up cutting a new channel causing unexpected erosion, destruction of property, and the loss of fish stocks. Essentially, if you build it, it may come!

You can see how inchannel gravel mining ant pit capture works.

At one mine on the North Saskatchewan River, operated by Mixcor, a company who’s website boasts of “a history of caring”, their Dahm gravel pit on the North Saskatchewan River was inundated during the 2013 floods.

This flood was fast and relentless, just as it was through the Bow River Valley. As the groundwater inundated the mine, followed by the surface water until the entire river course was drawn towards the mine.

Very quickly, mine machinery was buried and toxins from the mine began to leach into the ‘new’ river channel. Along with the toxins, the excessive sediment, drowned spawning beds and damage the gills of adult fish.

Fish stocks declined by up to 50% from this one case of pit capture. Keith Rae, the owner of Get Hooked Fishing Adventures carefully documents his companies catch rates. Before the flood, he recorded 2,851 catches, but after the flood, he only recorded 1,197. In 2014, it was even worse with only 1,305.

Upstream from the pit capture, the numbers remained consistent.

As Van Tighen relates in his story, glaciers were great purveyors of gravel, distributing vast amounts in areas far from gravel-bed rivers. The problem is that it is more expensive to mine.

As Kevin states:

“Glaciers left lots of upland gravel in Alberta. There is no need to steal it from our rivers. The only reason mining river floodplains is profitable is because gravel operators don’t pay for the dead fish, depleted water wells, diverted river channels and downstream siltation. We do.”

So far the provinces NDP government has not moved to change the regulations. Alberta is glacier country. It’s full of gravel. Let’s just start to take it from areas outside of these underground channels. That’s what we used to do prior to 2011.

Water is the issue of the 21st century. Scientists like Dr. Hauer are helping us to better understand the delicate ecosystems that we call home.

Naturalists like Kevin Van Tighem have also been helping visitors to the Canadian Rockies understand and experience the mountains for some 30 years. His newest book entitled Our Place: Changing the Nature of Alberta is now available from Rocky Mountain Books. You can also order it from at the following link:

And with that, it’s time to wrap this episode up. Don’t forget that Ward Cameron Enterprises is YOUR source for step-on, hiking, and snowshoe guides as well as workshop facilitators and keynote speakers focusing on all things related to the mountain west.

If you’d like to reach out personally, you can contact me through the contact link on this page or hit me up on Twitter @wardcameron. You can also visit our Facebook page at If you’d like to check out the shown notes at, you can find additional links as well as videos that help illustrate the concept of mining gravel-bed rivers.

And with that said, I’m off to Churchill to guide polar bear viewing trips for the next few weeks. I’ll be really busy with the bears between the 23rd of October and November 10th so please bear with me if you don’t see an episode for a few weeks.

This podcast is here to stay so I’ll post as my time permits but be back full-time upon my return in November. And with that said, it’s an awesome day today so I’m off to go hiking.

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