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Changing climate hitting one of the nation's cutest animals hard, study finds

Roberta Olenick | All Canada Photos | Getty Images

A small plant-eating relative of the rabbit, the American pika, is disappearing from parts of the western U.S. as a result of climate change, according to a new study from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and partners.

The American pika is a small herbivore that lives in rocky slopes in mountain ranges in the American West. The USGS study, published in The Journal of Mammalogy, found that there was evidence of "widespread reduction in pika range in three mountainous regions including the Great Basin, southern Utah and north-eastern California."

Pikas are seen as being an "indicator species" -- an animal that can give an early warning to scientists of changes in an ecosystem's biological condition, the USGS said.

"It is certainly clear that changes we have observed in pika distribution are primarily governed by climate, given that nearly all of our climate-related predictions have been borne out," Erik Beever, USGS research ecologist and lead author of the study, said in a news release.

"However, we are still refining our understanding of the exact combination of direct and indirect pathways by which climate is bringing about change," Beever added.