Animal of the Month
November 2022

Name: American Pika

Class: Mammalia
Order: Lagomorpha
Family: Ochtonidae
Genus: Ochotona
Species: O. princeps

Number of Subspecies: 5

Small, round, furry body; large, rounded ears, small snout, two black eyes; four legs with fingered paws.

Weight: About 6 ounces.
Size: 6.4-8.5 inches.
Color(s): Brown, with hints of gray.
Behavior: Diurnal, territorial.
Preferred Habitat: Cool, mountainous regions.
Range: Western United States and Canada.
Diet:Plants including fireweed, grass, sedge, and thistles.
Lifespan: 4-7 years.

Status: Least Concern

Are you the sort of person who dislikes hot temperatures? If so, perhaps you can relate to the small but spirited American pika! One of fifty species of Pika, the adorable American Pika is native to the mountains of the western United States and Canada.

American pikas are cousins of rabbits. American pikas are sensitive to high temperatures; in fact, six hours in 77.9 °F can be lethal to them! This is largely why they stick to high elevation plains and rock formations near alpine forests. When the day becomes particularly hot, pikas will withdraw into shade to keep cool until the temperature drops.

American Pikas spend their days foraging in the mountains for an assortment of plants, including thistles, fireweed, grass, and sedge. They keep vigilant watch against predators, including eagles, hawks, coyotes, foxes, weasels and bobcats. American pikas carve out territories called home ranges, which can be a whopping 410-709 square meters large! The home ranges of different pikas will often overlap; a pika will act to defend only about 55% of its territory depending on access to food. It is common for pikas to intrude on one-another's turf, though this is usually done when the resident pika is not active. If an intruder is caught, a pika will fight to defend its space, especially if the intruder is unfamiliar or of the same sex.

These complicated pika politics don't always result in conflict. Pikas will chirp and sing to each other to attract mates or warn against predators. Also, when pikas of the opposite sex are neighbors, they might become mated pairs! If there is more than one male in the area, the female will choose her own mate. Mating usually occurs during March at lower elevations, or from April through June at higher elevations. A female will have a litter of around three little pikas, which weigh only ten or twelve grams at birth! After four weeks, the babies will be weaned and start to disperse to find their own home ranges.

American pikas are currently classed as Least Concern. Their numbers appear to be strong in the wild; with that said, they are facing increased pressure due to climate change. Scientists are starting to notice pikas declining from their historic ranges. As the average temperature rises, it becomes harder and harder for American pikas to function outside. Some predict this will push the pikas to migrate to higher elevations, though many populations cannot do this easily due to the fragmented nature of their dispersal. If the temperatures continue to rise, life could become intolerable for the little pikas. Some fear that the pika could be the first species ever to go extinct due to human-driven climate change.

There are many people, however, who are sounding the alarm on the pika's plight. The Craighead Institute, in collaboration with other organizations, has been running research of pika populations in Montana. Colorado has also launched the Colorado Pika Project, encouraging people to help track pikas with their Pika Patrol app! As more scientists and civilians come together, we can create a safety net for our adorable mountain neighbors.

To learn more about the American Pika and how you can help, check out the following links!

Craighead Institute - A coalition of citizen scientists researching and protecting wildlife in Montana

Colorado Pika Project - A research project dedicated to understanding and protecting Colorado pikas!

You can also be a huge help to American pikas if you take the following steps:

  • Drive less! Try to bike or walk more often instead of driving a car.
  • Inspect your house to see how you can use less electricity! Are you leaving lights on when you don't need to? Or leaving phone chargers plugged in when not charging a phone?
  • Write to your representatives and urge them to take stronger action on climate change!
  • Tell everyone you know! The more people know there's a problem, the more support we can raise for the pika (and millions of other species!)


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