American Pika
Ochotona princeps

What Are They Like?

The American pika is a tiny, shy member of the rabbit family. An adult pika measures 6.4-8.5 inches (16.2-21.5 centimeters) in length, and weighs only 4-6 ounces (113.4-170.1 grams). Pikas have small, rounded ears, long and luxuriant whiskers, and no tails. American pikas live at very high altitudes because they simply cannot tolerate heat. They avoid hot weather by seeking out the cool crevices under boulders and by remaining inactive during warm periods. During the cold, snowy winters at high elevations, they are protected by their dense coat of fur—the same fur that makes them vulnerable to heatstroke during the hotter summer months.

Where Do They Live?

American pikas live at high altitudes among the rocky crags of the Rocky Mountains and the high Sierras. They make their homes on rocky talus slopes and high meadows of alpine and sub-alpine regions, which offer the food they need to survive during the long, snow-covered winter months. In Canada, pika populations occur from sea level to 9,842 feet (3,000 meters), but in New Mexico, Nevada, and southern California, populations rarely exist below 8,202 feet (2,500 meters).

 
Did You Know?
Some of the popular names for pikas are “rock rabbits,” “haymakers,” “conies,” “piping hares,” and “whistling hares.”

How Are Babies Made?

Rock-dwelling pikas have small litters of less than five young, which are born after a gestation period of between 25 and 30 days.

What Do They Eat?

Pikas are herbivores, and eat all kinds of plants, grasses and flowers—including varieties poisonous to other animals. During the short summer months when alpine flowers and grasses flourish, pikas are busy storing a “hay pile” of vegetation that will provide them with food and an insulated bed when the ground is covered with snow during the cold winter months.

 
Did You Know?
The pika can die from overheating when exposed to temperatures as mild as 78 degrees Fahrenheit (25.5 degrees Celsius) for just a few hours.

What Do They Do?

The most distinctive behavior of the pika is its industrious activity to store plants, flowers and grasses for the “hay pile” that will sustain it through the winter. Since pikas do not hibernate, and eat only plants, they need to set aside plenty of food in order to survive when the ground is covered with snow. Pikas save their winter larder in a very methodical way in a stack that often measures several feet thick and contains some 60 pounds (27.2 kilograms) of vegetation. During the summer months, a pika will make several trips a day to fetch and store food for its hay pile. Pikas first gather fresh vegetation and lay it in stacks to dry. Once the plants and grasses dry out, the pikas take this hay back to the burrows for storage.

How Concerned Should We Be?

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists the American Pika as “least concern.” Rising temperatures caused by greenhouse gas pollution have already led to dramatic losses of lower-elevation pika populations, pushing pikas upslope until they run out of habitat. More than one-third of documented pika populations in the Great Basin Mountains of Nevada and southern Oregon have gone extinct in the past century amid rising temperatures. Two separate studies have found that climate change will eliminate suitable habitat and push pikas toward extinction throughout much of the western United States in this century if greenhouse gas emissions are not drastically reduced.

What's Being Done?

On February 5, 2010, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service denied a petition by the Center for Biological Diversity to place the American pika on the Endangered Species List. “Although the American pika is potentially vulnerable to the impacts of climate change in portions of its range, the best available scientific information indicates that pikas will be able to survive despite higher temperatures.  Pikas will have enough suitable high elevation habitat to prevent them from becoming threatened or endangered.  As a result, the pika does not meet the criteria for protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA),” the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced. The conservation group immediately protested this decision, calling it “an impossible gamble that we can’t afford,” and saying that without ESA protection, pikas would disappear from 80 percent of their entire range in the U.S. by the end of the 21st century.

 

American Pika

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