The first thing I did when my dissertation went up in flames, quite literally, was to sit down and have a good cry.


Pika in a high-elevation rock slide. (Photo: Johanna Varner)

Let me explain. In summer of 2011, I had set off to Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge in search of the American pika, an unbelievably adorable small mammal in the rabbit family. Pikas are typically found only in high-elevation rock slides and boulder fields, and are generally considered a ‘canary in the coal mine’ for climate change in the mountains. That’s because they can overheat and die at temperatures as low as 75-degF. Yet in spite of this extreme sensitivity, a population thrives near sea level in the temperate rainforests of the Gorge. For my PhD dissertation, I was going to reveal how this delicate species was persisting in such unusual habitat.

But in ecology, as in life, everything is relative. I needed a baseline to which I could compare my observations at sea level. A sort of ‘control site’. Nearby Mt. Hood provided a perfect natural contrast. Pikas near the Timberline Trail were a mere 15 miles away but over 7,000 feet higher in elevation, in a habitat that was much more ‘typical.’

So, for three months, I spent each day observing the pikas at a handful of sites in both places. I got to know everything about them: their favorite rock crevices, their favorite foods. I watched them store food for the upcoming winter, constructing huge piles of grasses, flowers and other leaves. I even knew where they pooped. (I was basically a total creep.) In August, I set out sensors to record winter temperatures in their rocky homes, counted a few plants, and said goodbye to my research subjects. I left with grand plans for the next year.

And that’s about how far I got.

From pika paradise to ashy moonscape
The aftermath of the Dollar Lake fire: Not a good place for a pike

The Dollar Lake Fire ripped across the north face of the mountain, transforming vast, dense forests of majestic redwoods and hemlocks into ashy moonscapes with no vegetation. (Photo: Johanna Varner)

I returned the following year to a dramatically different landscape. Just a few days after I had left in 2011, the Dollar Lake Fire ripped across the north face of the mountain, leaving no stone unburnt. In fact, the fire had transformed vast, dense forests of majestic redwoods and hemlocks into ashy moonscapes with no vegetation. The pikas’ careful winter preparations had been reduced to crispy piles of burnt ashes. Even their latrine sites were toast.

This brings us to the part where I collapsed in tears. I didn’t know what else to do. After all, a whole summer of work and basically my whole future had just been incinerated. But, after a few hoppy IPAs and some encouraging words from a collaborator, I slowly came to realize that the fire had not actually destroyed my research. It had led me to a serendipitous discovery.

Across western North America, wildfires have been burning faster, hotter and more often, largely as a result of drier summers and reduced snowpack brought about by climate change. And while we have a fairly good understanding of how these fires will impact human habitat, we still don’t know much about whether wildlife will be able to beat the heat. Particularly those species with narrow habitat requirements and a limited ability to pack up and move to greener pastures. Like pikas.

Pika hidey holes

What I had on my hands was not, in fact, a fiasco, but a golden shot at accidental brilliance. Nobody had ever studied how pikas might respond to fire, and I had the perfect opportunity to find out.

So, I clicked into high gear and began counting pikas, surveying vegetation and deploying a small army of temperature sensors. My crew and I worked in scorched rock slides, as well as those that had not burned. This effort became a significant part of my (newly reframed) research agenda for the next four years.

Our first discovery was really cool. Literally. At this point, I had gained the dubious distinction of being the first person to record temperatures in a rock slide during a wildfire. Just 10 feet away from my temperature sensors, the forest had been transformed into white ashes, which, I learned, indicate that the fire temperature had exceeded 900-degF. But to my surprise, temperatures just a few feet under the rocks never exceeded 75-degF, even during the fire.

Pika resilience: once there were enough plants, the pikas were back!

A rather dramatic vegetation threshold for pikas was discovered – once there were enough plants, the pikas were back, right away. (Photo: Johanna Varner)

Let me reiterate that. Over a distance of just 10 feet, the temperature during the fire was over 800 degrees cooler. And 75 was just barely cool enough to avoid the pikas’ thermal danger zone. Talk about a serendipitous shelter from the storm!

The pikas came back, too. Rather quickly. In fact, within two years of the fire, every single rock pile we surveyed had been occupied by pikas in at least one season of sampling. We also discovered a rather dramatic vegetation threshold. Once there were enough plants, the pikas were back, right away.

In the end, this opportune disaster taught us a few important lessons. We learned a lot about the basic habitat requirements for pikas – how much plants do they need and how hot is too hot to trot. We also learned that pikas can rebound pretty quickly. Maybe they are a little less delicate than we thought. At least here.

And finally, if I ever get caught in a fire, my new plan is to make like a pika and head straight into the nearest boulder field!

Varner Johanna, Lambert Mallory S., Horns Joshua J., Laverty Sean, Dizney Laurie, Beever Erik A., Dearing M. Denise (2015). Too hot to trot? Evaluating the effects of wildfire on patterns of occupancy and abundance for a climate-sensitive habitat specialist. International Journal of Wildland Fire 24, 921–932. web

This story was selected as a finalist for the Golden Mole Award, from NPR’s Skunk Bear, which celebrates moments of serendipity in science. They asked for examples of happy accidents in the lab and in the field from the past few years … and 300 submissions came pouring in. Read the funny stories of the shortlist of Golden Mole Award nominees! Read more