Last week I returned from two months in India. Six weeks spent in the Himalayas of Sikkim and Himachal Pradesh collecting samples and three weeks spent processing them in the Ramakrishnan Lab, at the National Center for Biological Sciences in Bangalore.
In Sikkim I set off on a 10 day trek with an Indian collaborator (Nishma Dahal), two biologists from Russia, three local field assistants and four yaks carrying all of the food, fuel and cooking utensils that we would need for the trip. It took us three days of hiking to get our first glimpse of a pika. The fog would roll in so thick every day around noon that we were only able to search for pikas a few hours every morning. Due to this un-ideal weather we were unable to trap any pikas and headed back with only pellet samples. Once we hiked out of the Himalayas of Sikkim, Nishma and I took a 26 hour train ride to Delhi, a 13 hour bus ride to Manali in Himachal Pradesh, and a 10 hour jeep ride to our final destination, the small town of Kibber at 4200m. We worked in Kibber for three weeks with two local field assistants who were the hardest working people I have ever seen. Our time in Kibber was much more fruitful, not only did we collect hundreds of pika pellets but we trapped 17 pikas - took ear punches and released them unharmed. Life in this high elevation dessert was surprisingly full of life - herds of blue sheep scaling sheer cliffs with agility that I had never imagined possible, one or two red fox glaring at us every night on the way to the outhouse, snow leopard scats right on the trail- each containing one or two pika skulls. Once we completed our work in Kibber we brought the samples back to the Ramakrishnan Lab in Bangalore. Here I began genomics work on the three pika species from which we had tissue samples. These three species occupy different elevationtal ranges in the Himalayas and as climate changes it is projected that all of their ranges will be shifted to higher elevations. Although pikas are associated with cold environments, not all species evolved at high elevations. I hope that with genomic data from these species I will be able to identify genes responsible for hypoxia tolerance which will reveal if lower elevation species are at risk of extinction due to a lack of ‘pre-adaptation’.
Khangchendzonga National Park, Sikkim
Khangchendzonga National ParkPika near Kibber villagePika above Kibber village
Snow Leopard scat full of pika bones
Kibber village - 4200m
Setting traps with our two field assistants above Kibber