The American Pika lives in isolated rocky areas at up to 3,000 metres in elevation and is well-adapted to cold alpine climates. Biologists fear that these hearty creatures may not survive global warming; unlike many wildlife species that are shifting their ranges north or to higher altitudes in response to changing climate, pikas have nowhere else to go.
Amazing Facts About the American Pika
Tiny American Pikas belong to the same taxonomic order as rabbits and hares (Lagomorpha), though they lack the powerful hind legs of their cousins. They are at home on rocky slopes and are very sensitive to changes in temperature. They are an important indicator species for climate change.
What do Pikas look like?
Pikas have rounded bodies, soft brown and grey fur and hind legs the same length as their front. Their tails, which are one of the longest relative to body size in the Lagomorph order, are hidden under fur. Like rabbits and hares, they have distinctive dentition with long upper incisor teeth and a second smaller pair that serve no recognisable function. Pikas do not have canine teeth; instead, they draw their lips through the gap to prevent debris from entering their mouth while they feed.
Are there other species of Pika?
There are over 30 different species of Pika worldwide. The Collared Pika lives further north in northern Canada and Alaska. Like American Pikas, they live on scree slopes, but they produce slightly larger litters and have a grey collar of fur around their neck and shoulders. The Steppe Pika, which lives in southeastern Europe and Kazakhstan, digs burrows for shelter and remains active throughout the year. The soles of their feet are covered in fur to keep them warm in the snow! Pikas in the Himalayas can be found as high as 6,000 m, which is among the highest altitude of any mammal.
Where do Pikas live?
American Pikas are one of only a few mammals able to survive in alpine habitats above the tree line. They live on scree slopes in western Canada and the western USA. Scree slopes are large areas of fragmented rock eroded from the cliffs and mountains, also known as talus formations. These rocks provide a safe place for pikas to shelter from predators between foraging trips.
Pikas are territorial, and adults live alone most of the year. They tend to remain within the same territory for their whole life but will occasionally move into a higher-quality neighbouring territory if one becomes available. A scree slope can be home to a large colony of pikas, all living within their own territories but sharing the burden of watching for predators. This is effective as an alarm call by one individual will also be heard by neighbouring pikas.
What do Pikas eat?
Pikas are herbivores that feed on patches of vegetation growing amongst the scree. They may forage at any time of day but are most active in the early morning or early evening. During late summer, pikas stockpile ‘ladders’ of grass and leaves. Over time, the protein-rich vegetation desiccates to alpine hay and provides a stash of food for winter. It’s hard work, with individuals making hundreds of foraging runs daily. They are not against stealing carefully hoarded ‘ladders’ from others, though, so adults defend their territories fiercely over the winter! Pikas also mix toxic plants with edible ones to act as preservatives and maintain their food pile for longer.
Like rabbits, pikas gain maximum nutritional value from their herbivorous diet by ingesting it twice. This behaviour is called coprophagy, which occurs because their diet contains a lot of hard-to-digest cellulose. Chewed plant material collects in the caecum (a large chamber between the large and small intestines) and forms soft primary faeces. Pikas eat these immediately after excretion and they go through re-digestion in a special part of the stomach. Soft primary faeces contain five times the nutrients of the final hard pellets!
How do Pikas communicate?
Pikas typically make two different types of calls. Short calls act as alarms or warning signals to alert others to predators. They are also a form of territory defence. Long calls or ‘songs’ are used during the breeding season and sound rather like a lamb bleating but more high-pitched! Adult Pikas also leave scent marks (usually urine, faeces or secretions from their cheek glands) to attract potential mates and claim ownership of territories and food piles.
Do Pikas hibernate?
Pikas do not hibernate in the traditional sense, but they do spend more time in their den over winter. They use their high metabolism and thick winter coat to stay warm in their den and work their way through their hay pile. However, they are not asleep and may make short foraging trips on warm days. If their store of food runs out before spring, they will forage for lichen within the rock piles. Sometimes, they may move their hay pile to protect it from bad weather or to find a sunnier spot, which must be a long job for an animal no bigger than a baseball!
When do Pikas breed?
During the spring, adult male pikas expand their territories to include those of several neighbouring females. Female Pikas give birth to two litters each summer, usually consisting of 2-4 young that are about the size of a walnut at birth! It is common for only one litter to be successfully weaned each year, which leads to slower population growth than other small mammals, despite pikas being a relatively long-lived species.
Females drive the males and grown offspring out of their territory before winter arrives. Young pikas must then find and claim a vacant territory nearby in order to survive the winter. In areas where adult mortality is low, populations can become saturated, and many juveniles die before ever claiming a territory. Many young pikas survive by modifying their activity so they are foraging when the adult territory holders are asleep, living on the fringes of multiple territories in preparation for one becoming available.
What are the threats to Pikas?
Pikas are relatively common, but the IUCN Red List of Endangered Species does list some sub-species as vulnerable. They have already disappeared from more than a third of their range in states such as Oregon and Nevada, and a study in 2017 suggests that by 2050 97% of Pika habitat in the Lake Tahoe area will no longer be suitable.
Natural predators of the pika include species such as long-tailed weasels, coyotes, American martens and, occasionally, Golden Eagles. Pikas are well camouflaged against their rocky surroundings, but smaller predators may be able to follow them through the scree slope, and they give alarm calls less frequently for this type of predator, presumably to avoid drawing attention to their location.
Competition for food
In some areas, like the Great Basin between the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Nevada in California, pikas must compete with cattle for food as they graze in the meadows bordering their rocky habitat. Pikas in these areas typically place their hay piles further from the meadow and may use poorer vegetation in their winter larder. Fortunately, most pikas live in areas free from livestock or in areas where cattle only graze once hay piles are complete. But, with the expansion of agriculture, this competition may become more intense in future.
The greatest threat to pikas is climate change, as they are extremely sensitive to high temperatures. This is mainly because they retain a thick coat during the summer months and can die within an hour if the temperature rises above 23°C.
Warmer temperatures also melt the packed snow around scree slopes, which acts as an insulator over the winter. This puts pikas at risk of freezing, or it may wash away their food supplies. Pikas can alter their behaviour to an extent to cope with warmer temperatures, for example, by foraging overnight or at dawn and dusk. But, physiologically, there is little they can do. They are also notoriously poor at moving to new sites, so they can’t escape the rising temperatures by moving northwards – the temperature of the land they have to cross to reach new sites is usually too hot for them to handle. And, in the open, they are an easy target for predators like hawks and eagles. This leaves colonies venerable to local extinctions and explains why pikas are missing from many scree slopes.
How can you help the Pika?
Pikas live in National Parks and protected areas throughout Canada and the USA. By supporting the work of these parks through tourism, volunteering or donations, you are supporting the populations of pikas they protect. Hunting or trapping of pikas is against the law, and they appear to suffer no ill effects from trails or roads near their habitat. Their biggest threat is changing temperatures, so by joining the fight against climate change, you will be helping to ensure their survival.
Page updated March 2023 by OneKind Volunteer Ami Patrick.
- Type: Mammal
- Diet: Herbivore
- Lifespan: 3 - 7 years
- Size: 12 - 30 cm long
- Weight: 110 - 180 g
- Habitat: Scree slopes in rocky areas
- Range: South-western Canada and western USA
- Scientific name: Ochotona princeps