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Dec 18, 2013 08:48 AM EST

Pikas Eat Own Feces to Gain Nutrition, Study

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Pikas, a close relative of rabbits found normally in high altitude regions, adapt to lower altitudes by eating moss in large quantities, according to a University of Utah study. The findings on pikas in the Columbia River Gorge suggest that the mammals have the ability to survive warming temperatures than previously believed.

"Our work shows pikas can eat unusual foods like moss to persist in strange environments," biology professor Denise Dearing, senior author of the new study, said in a statement. "It suggests that they may be more resistant to climate change than we thought."

Jo Varner, the study's first author and a biology doctoral student, said that since mosses constitute 80 percent fiber, it is like eating paper.

"By consuming mosses that grow on the rockslides where they live, the pikas are released from foraging outside the safety and shady heat buffer of the rocks," where they can overheat or be killed by weasels and hawks, Varner said. "Few herbivores consume moss because it's so nutritionally deficient. The pikas in our study actually set a new record for moss in a mammal's diet: 60 percent."

The researchers also found that pikas living in low-elevation areas build smaller food storages when compared to their counterparts in higher altitude regions.

The sphere-shaped mammal with grayish-brown fur measures about 6 inches long and weigh 1/3 pound. They have small rounded ears, a tiny tail and a distinctive high-pitched call. Pikas usually live in habitats above 8,200 feet in North America, Asia and Eastern Europe. Due to the rising global temperatures Pikas have either become extinct in some parts or displaced to higher elevations.

Even though 60 percent of pikas diet constitutes mosses, they are still able to gain required amount of nutrition through caecal (pronounced see-cull) pellets which are different from normal feces. Similar to rabbits and hares, some of their feces is in the form of pellets. They eat them back to gain nutrition.

"Pikas and rabbits and their gut microbes are the ultimate recycling factory," Dearing said. "They ingest low-quality food, over and over again, and turn it into high-quality protein and energy. The end product is six times more nutritious than the moss."

The finding has been published online Journal of Mammalogy.

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