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Ecological Society of America

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Although increased frequency of extreme‐weather events is one of the most secure predictions associated with contemporary climate change, effects of such events on distribution and abundance of climate‐sensitive species remain poorly understood. Montane ecosystems may be especially sensitive to extreme weather because of complex abiotic and biotic interactions that propagate from climate‐driven reductions in snowpack. Snowpack not only protects subnivean biotas from extreme cold, but also influences forage availability through timing of melt‐off and water availability. We related relative abundances of an alpine mammal, the American pika (Ochotona princeps), to measures of weather and snowpack dynamics over an 8‐yr period that included before and after a year of record‐low snowpack in Washington, USA. We sought to (1) quantify any change in pika abundance associated with the snowpack anomaly and (2) identify aspects of weather and snowpack that influenced abundance of pikas. Pikas showed a 1‐yr lag response to the snowpack anomaly and exhibited marked declines in abundance at elevations below 1,400 m simultaneous with increased abundances at higher elevations. Atmospheric moisture, indexed by vapor pressure deficit (VPD), was especially important, evidenced by strong support for the top‐ranked model that included the interaction of VPD with snowpack duration. Notably, our novel application of VPD from gridded climate data for analyses of animal abundances shows strong potential for improving species distribution models because VPD represents an important aspect of weather that influences the physiology and habitat of biota. Pikas were apparently affected by cold stress without snowpack at mid elevations, whereas changes to forage associated with snowpack and VPD were influential at high and low elevations. Our results reveal context dependency in pika responses to weather and illustrate how snow drought can lead to rapid change in the abundance of subnivean animals.


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