BEARTOOTH MOUNTAINS, Yellowstone National Park — At the base of mountain cliffs and valley shoulders in western North America lives small mammals that look like a cross between a rabbit and a guinea pig. Known as American pikas, these animals are being pushed to extinction by warming global temperatures, but not if Kaitlyn Hanley has anything to say about it.
Hanley, a graduate student in biological sciences at Clemson University, studies these small, adorable animals in the Beartooth Mountains northeast of Yellowstone National Park. During the summer of 2016 — her first summer in the field — Hanley received the opportunity to be featured as a science expert on the plight of pikas facing climate change for both the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) nature films.
Kaitlyn’s BBC interview aired last winter in Europe as part of “Yellowstone: Wildest Winter to Blazing Summer.” Her PBS interview was broadcast in the United States on July 5 as part of the film “Great Yellowstone Thaw.”
Both films focused on how wildlife in the region are responding to the melting of the mountain snowpack in spring time. Because the weather in Yellowstone is extreme, with winters dropping to subzero temperatures and summers soaring to 80 degrees Fahrenheit, wildlife there encounter one of the harshest springs of any area. As winter’s snowfall melts, it flows tons of water down the mountains and into valleys below, wreaking destruction on animal habitats and food supplies.
Pikas are introduced as a side piece in both films’ summer episodes due to the animals’ sensitivity to high temperatures. Although pikas shed their winter coats in summertime, their fur is still thick enough that they can overheat in warm weather, even at mild temperatures of 78 degrees. Seeking cooler spaces, pikas burrow beneath rock piles in hot weather, which are then insulated in winter by snow fall. The animals feed on hay throughout winter, which they spend their entire summer collecting and hoarding in their burrows.
As climate change threatens to increase the surface temperature of the Earth, pikas are fleeing their low elevation homes for higher, cooler climates. However, this upslope retreat has been occurring for the past 12,000 years, and pikas are now running out of higher elevations in which to flee. In some places, entire pika populations have already disappeared.
Hanley’s TV interviews — which came as a surprise to her — highlighted this concern and its repercussions.
“We know one of the photographers who was a part of the project. He knew what we were doing and he knew what BBC and PBS needed, so he put us in contact,” Hanley said. “We initially thought I was going to be pointing out pikas because they’re hard to see when you’re a film guy who doesn’t look for wildlife, but then it turned into an interview. The producers had some space at the end of the summer episode, so they thought it would be a really good shot at what’s happening in the future for pikas. It was really cool!”
At the time of the interview, Hanley was conducting research in the Yellowstone region for her master’s thesis. Her project focuses on populations of pikas that are living at low elevations, contrary to the animals’ normal habitat.
“Even though pikas are disappearing in remote areas of the world, such as the mountains of Nevada and western China, scientists are still finding populations at low elevations,” said David Tonkyn, professor of biological sciences and Hanley’s graduate adviser. “My family is from Montana, and I have spent a lot of summers out there and know of low-elevation populations that don’t seem to fit the pattern. I think what’s happening is that valleys funnel cold air off the high mountains, allowing pikas to survive quite low. In mountainous regions, climate can vary dramatically from south- to north-facing slopes. Or if you’re in a canyon, cold air can descend quite low. I’ve always been interested in this and thought it would be a great project.”
When Hanley came to Clemson University in 2015 — prepared with a bachelor’s degree in biology and a minor in mathematics from Georgia Southern University, but also with an interest in conservation — Tonkyn gave her two options for a thesis project.
“I offered her a theoretical/mathematical biology project or this thing in the mountains studying pikas, where she’d never been, and of course she said: ‘Mountains!’ It’s more challenging, though, because then she had to find money to do it,” Tonkyn said.
Hanley, who is from Greenacres, Florida, began the grant-writing process, applying for one grant after another without pause. By the time her summer 2016 Yellowstone trip approached, she had received nearly $9,000 to cover the cost of living, travel and equipment for her graduate studies. Hanley will spend a total of three summers in Yellowstone before beginning to write her thesis.
“I came up with the general idea for the project, but Kaitlyn has made it her own and really run with it, becoming an expert,” Tonkyn said.
But “expert” isn’t exactly the term that Hanley would use to describe herself.
“For all intents and purposes, I had only been working with pikas for less than a year when the BBC interview happened, so to be thrown in front of a camera, it was like: ‘All right, let’s hope I don’t get anything wrong.’ But I don’t think I did,” Hanley said. “We went out for five days in fall 2015 to see if my project was even possible. Next thing you know, summer is around, I’m frolicking in the mountains of Yellowstone and I get interviewed. It’s crazy!”
While Hanley was already in Yellowstone last summer to give the interview for BBC, she and her research partner, Katie Quakenbush — a new graduate from Clemson’s department of biological sciences — had to be flown out once more in fall 2016 to interview for PBS’ production of the film. The second trip was paid in part by BBC, Clemson’s biological sciences department, and the dean’s office in the College of Science. In addition, Quakenbush wrote her own account of her time in Yellowstone. It can be found here.
The team’s research comes amid a national and worldwide political debate concerning climate change and its effects on the environment. When asked how the current political situation affects her research, Hanley, who wants to make a career out of conservation studies, said she remains optimistic.
“I’m hopeful, because there is a lot of work being done out west, at least for pikas. I went to the North American Pika Conference in February, and researchers there talked a lot about how we can get involved with the public to approach the question of climate change,” Hanley said. “It’s interesting. I work and have a permit for Yellowstone Park, so I see the other side of it that tourists don’t see. I get what happens when they’re understaffed and underfunded, and it’s sad and frustrating because there’s so much research going on. But people come to Yellowstone and they see it for the first time in their lives, and they become amazed, thinking: ‘I’m going to take steps to help protect this place,’ which is all I can hope for.”
With nature films like “Wildest Winter to Blazing Summer” and the “Great Yellowstone Thaw” being frequently produced by BBC, PBS and other nonprofits like National Geographic, the response of wildlife to climate change is sure to be documented for a long time to come.