Aim Within the past few decades, seven of the 25 historically described populations of American pikas (Ochotona princeps) in the Great Basin of arid western North America appear to have become extinct. In this paper, the prehistoric record for pikas in the Great Basin is used to place these losses in deeper historical context.
Location The Great Basin, or area of internal drainage, of the western United States.
Methods The location, elevation, and age of all reported prehistoric Great Basin specimens of American pikas were extracted from the literature. Elevations of extinct pika populations were arrayed through time, and latitudes and longitudes of those populations used to determine changing distances of those populations from the nearest extant populations.
Results The average elevation of now-extinct Great Basin pika populations during the late Wisconsinan (c. 40,000–10,000 radiocarbon years ago) and early Holocene (c. 10,000–7500 years ago) was 1750 m. During the hot and dry middle Holocene (c. 7500–4500 years ago), the average elevation of these populations rose 435 m, to 2168 m. All prehistorically known late Holocene (c. 4500–200 years ago) populations in the Great Basin are from mountain ranges that currently support populations of this animal, but historic period losses have caused the average elevation of pika populations to rise an additional 152 m. The total elevational increase, from the late Wisconsinan and early Holocene to today, has been 783 m. As lower elevation pika populations were lost, their distribution increasingly came to resemble its modern form. During the late Wisconsinan, now-extinct pika populations were located an average of 170 km from the nearest extant population. By the late Holocene, this distance had declined to 30 km.
Main conclusions Prehistoric alterations in the distribution of pika population in the Great Basin were driven by climate change and attendant impacts on vegetation. Today, Great Basin pikas contend with both climate change and anthropogenic impacts and thus may be on the brink of extinction.