My colleague Embere, of the Teton Science Schools, and her husband John managed to make their flight, unexpectedly moved forward a day, yesterday afternoon, after a two week trip through central Mongolia’s Khangai Range in search of pikas. Of Mongolia’s four pika species, Ochotona alpina, a talus obligate, is perhaps most similar to North America’s high altitude Ochotona princeps, alleged to be disappearing from low-elevation sites due to climate change. Embere’s trip to Mongolia initiates what will hopefully be a long-term monitoring project to see if Mongolia’s high altitude pikas are responding similarly. We were fortunate to have the opportunity to hire a recent graduate of the Mongolian National University’s ecology program as a field assistant; Miki finished school in June and is interested in high-altitude ecosystems – including wolverines – and we hope that she will continue to be involved with the project. Intriguingly, thriving pika populations were common at several locations in the Khangai, but during an informal stroll through talus fields at the low-elevation Bogd Khan Uul outside of Ulaanbaatar, we found evidence of previous pika presence, but no current sign. It’s too soon to reach any conclusions, but it raises some interesting questions.
For a small critter, pikas are actually time and energy intensive, so I didn’t have as much time during our trip to talk to people about wolverines as I would have liked. I did, however, hear from one herder whose dog killed a small female wolverine this past March. As expected, he said that the region’s peaks maintained snow into late May or early June, and said that during the winter, wolverine tracks were easy to find.
In Mongolian, the word for wolverine, nokhoi zeekh, means ‘dog weasel;’ in the encounter between nokhoi and nokhoi zeekh, it’s a pity that the wolverine lost. I asked if the herder noticed whether the wolverine was lactating or not, but he laughed.
“No, the carcass was just garbage, and it smelled terrible. Those animals stink, you know. I threw it out without really looking too closely.”
I asked if he thought it might be possible to retrieve the skull or any of the bones, but he laughed at that, too.
Jason Wilmot, my wolverine biologist colleague and boss at NRCC, arrives tonight, and then the wolverine work really begins, as we head north to Lake Hovsgol with Miki…assuming, that is, that we can get our border permits in time, and find Miki a backpack and a pair of hiking boots that can stand up to a real wolverine trek.
As a final note on pikas and wolverines, an article from Yale Environment360 explores the links between climate change and the Endangered Species Act, with a focus on pikas as a flagship species. This article missed the wolverine entirely in its list of climate-sensitive species up for consideration for listing, but it makes some points that are relevant to attempts to protect Gulo gulo – particularly as Colorado begins to discuss substantial investment in reintroducing wolverines to the southern Rockies. Interesting times for those contemplating the future of nokhoi zeekh around the world.