The Inyo chipmunk apparently is no longer living in the Sierra. Researcher James Patton has been looking for the high altitude chipmunk for two years and found none. He has set hundreds of traps in areas where they used to live, and caught not a single Inyo chipmunk. In 1911 they were fairly common.
Now the species has disappeared. No single explanation has been found for their disappearance. Speculation leans towards climate change altering their historical habitat. Forest conditions where they lived have shifted towards earlier snowmelts and warmer temperatures.
But it isn’t only the Inyo chipmunk that has undergone changes. The alpine chipmunk used to be found in significant numbers at about 8,600 feet at Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite. Now it has moved to higher elevations.
Patton said, “Chipmunks are giving us a bigger signal of change than any of the other small mammals in the Sierra Nevada,” said Patton. “Chipmunks are far more interesting than what everybody is focusing on.” (Source: Sacramento Bee)
He believes what is happening to chipmunks is a better indicator of climate change impacts than the pika situation.
The World Wildlife Fund says this about pika, “American pikas may be the ‘canary in the coal mine’ when it comes to the response of alpine and mountain systems to global warming.”
It might have been that pica were the first alpine animals to be observed in danger of extinction due to climate change. Marmots are also being impacted by climate change. The warmer high altitude temperatures are causing them to come out of hibernation a month earlier than they usually do. They reportedly are getting fat due to eating for an extra month of the year. The change in their behavior was noted to probably not be constructive long-term, “But in this case the effect is only temporary, since the forces that are causing marmots to thrive are almost certain to spell their doom.” (Source: LA Times) The same conditions might have caused the Inyo chipmunks to have insufficient food to survive in the Sierra. A warmer, drier habitat may not allow the same plants to grow they depend upon.
Inyo Chipmunks are not completely extinct. Some still live in the White Mountains, which are fairly close to the Sierra. If Mr. Patton had not noticed their disappearance in the Sierra, would anyone else have? Some might say, “It’s just a chipmunk, who cares?” Many species living in mountains could be in danger from climate change. This chipmunk could be the beginning of a period of their demise.
Image Credit: Laws Field Guide to the Sierra Nevada