Updated: Oct 26, 2020
There are 30 species of Pika worldwide in the Northern Hemisphere with two being found in North America; Ochotona princeps – the American Pika found in the mountains of western US and O. collaris the collared Pika found in western Canada and Alaska. It is thought they first arrived from Asia via the Bearing Land Bridge 12,000 years ago and spread across North America. They once lived all across North America but they have been retreating to ever higher elevations seeking cooler temperatures ever since. They have survived in isolated niches at lower elevations where cooler temperatures exist like the ice filled lava tubes in Lava Beds National Monument in California.
Pika have short stout bodies, round ears, no visible tail and are the smallest member of the Rabbit family. In length they average 6”-8” and weigh 5-6 ounces. Their average lifespan is 7 years. They generally mate as the mountain snows begin to melt and a litter will vary from 2 to 6. Their fur varies from brown to black and is generally a lighter shade of color in summer to match their rocky habitat.
In Rocky Mountain National Park near where I live; there are two sub-species of American Pika (northern and southern). Their ranges do overlap as the elevation where they are found does overlap somewhat. Pika are found in rocky areas and talus slopes from treeline (roughly 10,800') to the tundra. They are sensitive to temperature and can die in 6 hours if exposed to temperatures in the 75°-77° range. Typically they are found on talus slopes below a snow field. The snow melt flowing under the rocks provides a cool refuge from mid day sun. A Pika's average home range is .37 acres.
Pika are typically heard before they are seen generally scurrying around for food. They have several distinct high pitched calls relating to; individual identification, predator warning, territory defense and attracting the opposite sex. The calls can vary somewhat depending on the season. They generally live in small colonies for defense from predators which include; weasels, hawks and coyotes.
Pika are diurnal and spend most of their warm weather waking hours gathering food or “haying”. They do not hibernate in the winter; so once melting snow and warmer temperatures allows them to leave their winter home they spend most of the daylight hours gathering and storing food for the next winter. They are herbivores and feed on grasses, weeds and flowers. During the growing season a Pika will average 13 trips per hour / 100 trips per day gathering food.
Pika are a prime example of a species impacted by global warming. As global warming continues to cause temperatures to rise, Pika are retreating to ever higher elevations. If their habitat does not include higher elevations into which they can retreat, they disappear. They have already disappeared from a third of their previously known habitat in Oregon and Utah.
“The Pikas In Peril Project” funded through the National Park Service Climate Change Response Program began collecting data in May 2010 and ended in 2016. The project addressed questions regarding Pika vulnerability to climate change. The research was conducted by researchers from eight universities and staff from three National Parks. Building on the results from that project is the Front Range Pika Project sponsored by; the Denver Zoo, Rocky Mountain Wild and University of Colorado – Boulder (www.pikapartners.org). A petition for listing under the Endangered Species Act was denied.
Sources: Rocky Mountain NP, National Wildlife Federation, Oregon Wild, Wikipedia