...what it is like to study the world's cutest mammal? (with Johanna Varner)

Ever Wonder? / June 7, 2023
PikaJo with pika
Image attribution
Courtesy of IF/THEN Collection
JoVarner holding Pika
Image attribution
Courtesy of IF/THEN Collection
Image attribution
Courtesy of IF/THEN Collection

On today’s episode we chat with Johanna Varner (@johannavarner), aka Pika Jo! An ecologist and Assistant Professor of Biology at Colorado Mesa University.  

Do you ever wonder what it is like to study the world’s cutest mammal? 

Johanna has spent her career studying the ecology and conservation of alpine and arctic ecosystems, with a particular interest in a small, adorable animal: the pika. For those of you familiar with the beloved Pokémon character Pikachu, you may be surprised to learn that pikas were the inspiration behind such a cute little fella!  

In this episode, Johanna shares with us her insights into the challenges that pikas face, including the impacts of climate change on their habitats, and how we can all play a role in preserving these important species. 

So, whether you are a fan of Pikachu, an aspiring scientist, or just someone who loves learning about the world around us, join us in our conversation with Jo.   

Have a question you've been wondering about? Send an email or voice recording to [email protected] to tell us what you'd like to hear in future episodes. 

Follow us on Twitter (@casciencecenter), Instagram (@californiasciencecenter), and Facebook (@californiasciencecenter). 


Karen Arroyo (00:06):

Hello, this is Ever Wonder? from the California Science Center. I am Karen Arroyo. For those of you familiar with the beloved Pokémon character Pikachu, you may be surprised to learn that pikas, small, adorable animals were actually the inspiration behind such a cute little fella. Do you ever wonder what it's like to study the world's cutest mammal? On today's episode, we chat with Assistant Professor of Biology at Colorado Mesa University, Joanna Varner, also known as Pika Jo. So whether you are a fan of Pikachu, an aspiring scientist, or just someone who loves learning about the world around us, join us in our conversation with Pika Jo.

Jennifer Aguirre (00:51):

Joanna Varner. You're an Associate Professor of Biology at Colorado Mesa University. Jo, welcome to the show.

Joanna Varner (00:57):

Thank you for having me.

Jennifer Aguirre (00:58):

And joining us today as co-host is Karen Arroyo. Hi Karen.

Karen Arroyo (01:02):

Hi, Jenny. Hi, Jo.

Jennifer Aguirre (01:04):

Jo, what would you say is the cutest animal?

Joanna Varner (01:07):

Well, pikas of course.

Jennifer Aguirre (01:09):

And what is the pika?

Joanna Varner (01:11):

So pikas are small mammals. They're closely related to rabbits. They are about the size and shape of a russet potato, and they live in rock side and boulder fields, typically above or at around tree line. So up kind of in the higher mountains.

Karen Arroyo (01:25):

That is so interesting. And you know, Jo, to me, pika sounds kind of like Pikachu. Is that a coincidence?

Joanna Varner (01:33):

I don't think so. So my understanding is that Pikachu is actually based on a pika, but it's kind of like a pika had a baby with a lightning bolt and made this magical animal that of course doesn't exist in real life.

Karen Arroyo (01:45):

You know, Pikachu is also very cute.

Joanna Varner (01:48):

Very cute. Yes. pikas actually have rounder ears, though Pikachu has kind of, sharper longer ears. And the pika at ears are a little bit more kind of round like a Mickey Mouse style ears.

Jennifer Aguirre (02:00):

It threw me off a little bit when I saw a pika, well not in real life, but on an online photo because I was picturing like Pikachu a little bit. Yeah. So, but I've adjusted, I've accepted they're still cute with little round ears.

Joanna Varner (02:18):

Pikachu gets its ears from the lightning bolt heritage, I think.

Jennifer Aguirre (02:21):

Yes. It's like a mixture. Like you said.

Joanna Varner (02:23):


Jennifer Aguirre (02:24):

Pika and, uh, lightning bolt. All right. So, let's get a little bit more of background on pikas. Where do they live? What are their characteristics or personalities that you've observed?

Joanna Varner (02:37):

Pikas tend to live in the mountains, usually at or around tree line. They're, the species of pika that I study is called the American Pika, and it's found in the mountains of western North America. So, they're found basically from kind of the Colorado Rockies, all the way west to the Cascades and the Sierra Nevada’s. For you guys located in LA, probably the closest population of pikas is kind of up by Sequoia National Park and, Mount Whitney, which is kind of the southern range, edge of their distribution, but they're also found north into Canada and the Canadian Rockies and the Cascade North Cascade Range. So no pikas on the east coast, unfortunately for any listeners that are out there. But you guys have other cute animals as well. Pikas are about the size and shape of a potato. So if you think about like the russet potato that you see in the grocery store, that's about the same size and they look a little bit like a Guinea pig, but they're actually more closely related to rabbits. And you can see that if you watch that a little bit in terms of the way that they move through rock side and boulder fields where they live, they kind of hop a little bit like rabbits.

Jennifer Aguirre (03:47):

So why is it important to study pikas?

Joanna Varner (03:50):

Yeah, pikas can teach us a lot about what's going on in our mountain ecosystems. So mountains are really an interesting kind of habitat for animals because there can be really harsh, right? There's really long winters, you have a lot of snow. The soils aren't super nutrient rich, so it's kind of hard for plants to make it up there. And animals have to be able to deal with these major temperature swings as well as nine months where there's not much to eat because it's all covered in a thick layer of snow. And pikas are sensitive to some elements of change because they can't really tolerate very warm temperatures and they kind of depend on that really thick snow pack during the winter. And so, for that reason, I think pikas can tell us a lot about how mountain habitats are changing, for example, as a result of climate change or as a result of land use change or other kinds of changes that we're seeing, because of our habit, our activities, through lots of different natural habitats. Other reasons that I think it's important to study pikas is that they are also really important members of the Alpine food web. So they are an important food source for species like weasels. Obviously, I hate to see pikas get eaten, but I know that, you know, weasels have to eat something. And a lot of times it's these little animals and they also can change the way that nutrients are moved around through rocky habitats in the mountains. So if you think about some of these mountain habitats, they're kind of, just big piles of rocks and there's not much soil and there's not much plants. But pikas do different kinds of activities in order to survive the winter that involve bringing plants into the rocks in a way that can change the nutrients that are available in those rocks or create habitat for plants to grow.

Karen Arroyo (05:33):

Hearing you describe the range of pika populations across California made me realize that I, myself being, LA native born and raised, I myself have never seen a pika. So do you remember the very first time you saw a pika?

Joanna Varner (05:50):

Yeah, I definitely remember the first time that I saw a pika on purpose. I grew up in Salt Lake City, living in the mountains in the Wasatch Mountains and doing a lot of camping and hiking and backpacking. And so I probably saw a lot of pikas as a kid but didn't realize what they were. They're interesting because they're one of the only lagomorphs or the member of the rabbit group that actually vocalized. So if you think about it, rabbits are usually pretty quiet and pikas make these little calls that sound a little bit like. (imitates sound) It helps if you plug your nose when you make a pika call for whatever reason. And I first learned about pikas watching a nature show when I was in college on the east coast and I thought, oh my gosh, this is the cutest animal ever. I've gotta find this animal. And so I actually, that summer was going on a family vacation with my boyfriend at the time and his family and I basically completely co-opted their family vacation to go look for pikas in Rocky Mountain National Park. And I asked all the park rangers where we could go find pikas, which are my new favorite animal from this nature show. And I made everybody spread out and look for them and listen for them. And we did end up finding them. And thankfully that family sort of reflects on that experience as having been part of my birth as a pika biologist and not, you know, some sort of crazy in-law taking over a family vacation and making everybody do something they weren't that excited about.

Jennifer Aguirre (07:19):

I wouldn't mind if you took over my family vacation. I wrote down the locations of where I can find a pika and I'm going to go and look for them. I'm actually very excited. They're so cute.

Joanna Varner (07:32):

When you do go look for pikas, you, there's an app that you can actually use to share pika locations with pika scientists.

Jennifer Aguirre (07:41):

Oh wow!

Joanna Varner (07:42):

But I helped to develop this year. We're so delighted about it. It's called Pika Patrol. It is available in the Apple App store or the Google Play Store. It's free, you download it to your phone. It includes a guide on how to identify pikas by sight or call or other types of sign that you might see. And, when you go on a hike in pika habitat, if you see or hear a pika, you can both record the sound or take a picture and you can upload your observation including your location where you are and the date and time and any other notes about what you saw. And then that observation goes into a database of other observations submitted by community scientists across the country who are also looking for pikas on their family vacations.

Jennifer Aguirre (08:30):

That's pretty awesome. I actually, I am writing all this stuff down because I'm actually very excited to go out, you know, and explore. I love hiking and doing stuff. So let's talk about how you decided to become a pika biologist. What made you take that direction?

Joanna Varner (08:48):

I didn't actually plan to be a pika biologist. When I was in high school, I knew that I really liked math and science and in college, I actually studied biomedical engineering at MIT, so I was there for five years. I did a master's degree in biomedical engineering and I worked in a lab trying to, culture brain cells with an ultimate goal of being able to regenerate these really, really specialized types of neurons that die back in certain kinds of neuro-degenerative diseases like ALS or Alzheimer's or Parkinson's disease. But that work was a lot of time in a cold, dark room by myself. And, when I finished my master's degree, I was a little bit burned out. I needed to do something that was a little bit more social and a little bit more outside and a little bit more sunlight. And I took some time off. I worked on some organic farms. I traveled, I worked at a bakery, and I kind of relaxed a little bit. And in, during that time I read a newspaper article in the Salt Lake Tribune that was about pikas and there was this big, beautiful, gorgeous color picture. It was not long after I had learned about pikas from the nature show and had gone to see them at Rocky Mountain National Park with my boyfriend's family vacation. And they interviewed this woman at University of Utah who had done her PhD on pikas. And so I kind of had this idea I could reach out to her and find out how she became a pika biologist. And it wasn't really until that time that it even, it really occurred to me that people do science in the mountains and that they study things like pikas. And I was like, I would be so good at that. I just tried to spend all summer in the mountains watching pikas for fun. Like, but actually it could be science and my job. So I did, I reached out to her, I sent her an email that probably sounded a little bit like: Hi, my name's Jo and I really like pikas and I have a master's in engineering, but I think I'd like to be a pika biologist. What should I do? And she responded to me and offered to meet with me and I ended up working in her lab for about a year doing a different kind of research on tracking Hantavirus in mice in the desert. But I'd learned during that time that both, I had a really great relationship with my mentor, her name was Denise, and also that I really liked field work and working with animals, in nature. That was really, it was really well suited to it and I really enjoyed it and I found it really meaningful and fulfilling. So when the funding for the Hantavirus Project ran up, Denise encouraged me to apply for graduate school. And so I did. And then I started studying pikas in the Columbia River Gorge and Mount Hood and ultimately got a job teaching here in Colorado, as a teacher and a pika biologist and am continuing to do research. So it's super fun. It something that I probably never would've imagined for myself for a long time in my life, but now is really a great way to kind of combine my interests and my hobbies, with a job.

Karen Arroyo (11:58):

It's really interesting to me because you developed a whole career in a different field, right? You got your bachelor's degree, you got your master's degree, and both of those degrees were not related to pikas at all.

Joanna Varner (12:11):


Karen Arroyo (12:12):

Um, and I'm sure that they informed and gave you tools that you needed to go into that field as a pika biologist, but it makes me think of a lot of high schoolers right now that feel pressured to know what program they want to apply to as an incoming freshman in college. And I tell them all the time, like, Hey, it's okay to change your mind and knowing what you don't like to do is going to better inform what you can potentially go into.

Joanna Varner (12:44):

Yeah, I think that's really important advice. I changed my major three times and then obviously changed my career after I graduated with a master's. So I think it's never too late to take a left turn and, and explore a different field. I think what you said about knowing what you don't like and what doesn't work for you is as important as finding out what you do like because it helps guide your choices and that no matter what you did before, it's never a waste of time because you were still learning skills, growing, learning about yourself. And I just think it's a lot to ask, you know, incoming freshman or high school students to make choices about a career for the rest of their lives. Because first of all, you may not even have all the information about what careers are out there and second of all, you change and grow as a person too, as you move through life. So I think that, you know, kind of honoring those changes and, trying to find things that are good fit for both your skills and your interests and, and the way that you like to spend your time and the way that you like to work is really important. And it just doesn't have to be something that you figure out when you're 18.

Jennifer Aguirre (13:53):

Uh, Jo, so I was researching and I came across the If/Then Ambassador Program. Can you tell us about the If/Then Ambassador Program?

Joanna Varner (14:03):

Yeah, If/Then is a really cool program, it's run by a woman named Lida Hill in Texas. And she basically decided that one of the causes she really wanted to support was addressing this kind of the way that scientists are portrayed in the media and in particular, with respect to gender. And so, you know, if you think about a lot of movies or TV shows, the people who are the scientists are oftentimes represent a very narrow range of demographics, compared to the range of people who are scientists in the real world. And so she started this program and, a whole bunch of different people applied and they ultimately selected 125 real female STEM professionals across a big variety of other different kinds of identities. And to sort of be out there as ambassadors for our fields. And so each one of these other women is a leader in her field and they're sometimes in fields that you don't necessarily think of as being associated with science. Things like fashion or sports or, you know, other different fields of math or technology development or computer programming. In addition to the sort of life science kinds of things that I have experience with. And we have had a ton of opportunities to kind of share our story through the media. Being on TV shows, they've created some TV shows to sort of spotlight female science professionals that are leaders in their field. They've developed a bunch of materials that are going into science centers and museums and zoos around the country. And maybe the craziest thing that they did that I just think is so cool is that they did a 3D scan of each of us and then they printed a life size 3D printed statue of all 125 of us. And they displayed these statues in Dallas a couple of times. They also were in Washington DC at the Smithsonian last year in March of 2022. The thing about that exhibit that's so cool is that it's, in addition to being really inspiring that there are so many female leaders across all of these different fields of science, I think that it's really cool to see them all together because it's also kind of like a catalog of the jobs that exist out there in STEM. So if you're interested in STEM and computers, there's like 10 different women who work in that space doing slightly different things. Or if you're interested in STEM and outdoors, there's me and a couple of other women who do sort of natural history stuff outside. There's somebody who's a bat expert and who's done all sorts of really cool research and public engagement work with bats, in addition to pikas and in addition to lizards. And so it's kind of a neat way for young people to get to just sort of check out like what careers exist out there in science and which ones, you know, sort of speak to you. And then a real person who is a role model for helping people be inspired to pursue that field.

Karen Arroyo (17:10):

Yes, representation matters. I cannot say that enough. I cannot say it loud enough. So I'm really glad to hear that programs like the If/Then Ambassador Program exist because I could have really benefited from exhibits like that when I was growing up. But wait a minute, what was it like meeting your 3D orange life size printout?

Joanna Varner (17:35):

It was totally surreal. It's definitely not an experience that I would've ever expected for myself and it was really cool to see myself, among these other women, but I think that honestly even cooler than me being a part of it was getting to see all of those statues altogether. And just sort of seeing that diversity of humanity and all of these different women who are leaders in their field and who are doing all kinds of things. And I have to say actually at first I was a little bit not that excited about the orange color. Like I've kind of felt like we looked like Happy Meal toys from the eighties.

Jennifer Aguirre (18:12):

I thought of Oompa Loompas from Willy Wonka.

Joanna Varner (18:16):

But actually like in watching the way that people interacted with the exhibit, especially when it was in Washington DC, I came to really celebrate the orange because the orange is like, it really signals like this is something you should check out. And so if you walk past a garden that has a bunch of statues that are brown or gray or marble colored, you'd be like, oh, it's a statue garden. Okay, whatever, you know. But when you walk past a garden that has 120 orange women.

Jennifer Aguirre (18:47):

They're bright.

Joanna Varner (18:47):

I think. Yeah, they're bright. Yeah. And they, they are loud and they say, come check this out. This is a thing that you need to see. Yes, you, whoever you are, come see this exhibit. And so I've actually come to really celebrate the orange. I think it's really cool and I think that it really draws people in that might not otherwise have gone to see the exhibit and who then are sort of surprised at how cool it is once they're in there.

Jennifer Aguirre (19:11):

Uh, great stories Jo. I loved learning about pikas and I'm just excited you took this route cause, I might sound silly, but I'm like losing my mind over the Pika Patrol app a little bit. I'm gonna download it. I'm gonna download it right after we're done recording and I'm gonna check it out and I'm gonna drag my husband and my stepdaughter along with me to look for pikas.

Joanna Varner (19:34):

It's the cutest app in the app store right now.

Karen Arroyo (19:38):

Jo, it was so much fun learning about these cute furry creatures. Thank you so much for joining us today.

Karen Arroyo (19:42):

And that's our show. Thanks for listening. Until next time, keep wondering. Ever Wonder? from the California Science Center is produced by me, Karen Arroyo, along with Jennifer Aguirre, D. Hunter White, and Perry Roth-Johnson. Liz Roth-Johnson is our editor. Theme music provided by Michael Nickolas and Pond5. We'll drop a new episode every other Wednesday. If you're a fan of the show, be sure to subscribe and leave us a rating or review on Apple Podcast. It really helps other people discover our show. Have a question you've been wondering about. Send us an email or voice recording to [email protected] to tell us what you'd like to hear in future episodes.