American pika (Citizen Science)
Credit: GlacierNPS on flickr / Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic

If you've ever seen or heard an American pika (Ochotona princeps), you won't forget it. They are curious, vocal, cute, and incredibly fast. They are a joy to watch. So when I read a Science Daily report that climate change is driving them out of their habitat in the Californian mountain region, I felt compelled to research these adorable critters. 

American Pika (Citizen Science)GlacierNPS on flickr / Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 GenericFirst published January 29th, 2015 in the Journal of Biogeography, Joseph A. E. Stewart et al. made the following conclusions:

  • Pikas were no longer living in 15% of their previous habitats (which have been studied for numerous years) in California.
  • The underlying reasons for their decline appear to be summer temperatures and the layout of their rocky (aka talus) habitats.

In 1974, Adam B. Smith et al. showed that pikas avoid heat stress by curtailing their search for food and by seeking a cooler refuge in talus fields.

What's interesting about the latest study is that American pikas have adapted to higher temperatures caused by global warming by moving to higher ground. The average elevation of the inhabited regions were found to be 500 meters higher than the average extirpated areas.

Similar to northern spotted owl habitat, extirpated areas are where a species was once found to be naturally occurring but has been driven out (for any number of reasons) yet can still be found living elsewhere.

As you can imagine, the higher up the pikas need to go, the more restricted, fragmented, and isolated their habitat becomes. I imagine this also negatively impacts their ability to forage for food, find a mate and raise their young.

PikaJim Kravitz (jimmypk on flickr) / Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 GenericAs odd as it sounds, global warming could be causing pikas to freeze to death.

In Paul Tolmé's 2005 National Wildlife Federation (NWF) article, biologist Chris Ray explained that when there is less snow to cover talus slopes, pikas lose insulation from the cold in winter. She added, "If they are shivering through winter, that certainly would affect their fitness."

In the past, during warmer temperatures, pikas would easily make the trek between mountain ranges.

Today, this journey has become more dangerous since pikas need to travel longer, farther, and higher to find a habitable area. I surmise that this extra travel time would increase their exposure to predators too.

Alpine mammalogist, Barry Rosenbaum, confirmed that, "All other mammal species in continental North America have greater heat tolerances [than the pika]."

Flute From the Top of Pika's Traverse

Squamish-Lillooet, British Columbia, Canada

Flute from the top of Pika's Traverse
Credit: Ruth Hartnup (ruthanddave on flickr) taken Aug. 2nd, 2014 / Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic

Other Names for Pikas and Places They Are Found

No Relation to the PikachuPhoto: Steve Torbit | USFWS Mountain-Prairie on flickr / Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 GenericPikas are also called mouse hares, conies, rock rabbits (particularly in Asia), or whistling hares and are found in cold, mountainous regions of Eurasia and North America.

There are 14 to 26 species of pikas worldwide. With the exception of four species, all pikas primarily live in talus or rocky areas.

In Canada, two species can be found. According to The Canadian Encyclopedia, the Rocky Mountain pika (Ochotona princeps) is found throughout the Rocky mountains of Alberta and British Columbia. It is closely related to the American pika, but is a single species (known as monotypic) which has no other recognized, or perhaps known, subspecies.

The Collared pika (Ochotona collaris) shown below, can be found in northern British Columbia, the Yukon, western parts of the Northwest Territories and southern areas of the state of Alaska.

Collared pikas have more gray fur with a distinct "collar" of it around their necks. They also have cream-coloured fur over a gland in their face (which is brown in American pikas). Their skulls are wider, noses shorter, middle ear (tympanic bullae) larger, and their teeth are different than Ochotona princeps.

The Collared Pika

Collared Pika
Credit: NPS Photo by Jacob W. Frank (denalinps on flickr) / Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic

Fascinating Pika Facts

  • For their entire life, pikas tend to remain within a 1 km range of their habitat. In the wild, their lifespan is about three years. Sadly, 27 to 53 percent of pikas die in a year - usually in their first year of life or if they survive beyond 5 years of age. The longest an American pika is known to live is 7 years.
  • They are not a member of the rabbit family (as some sources state). They are most closely related to rabbits yet comprise their own family, Ochotonidae. In the taxonomic order Lagomorpha, there are two living families: Leporidae (rabbits and hares) and Ochotonidae (pikas).
  • Skeleton of Pika (Ochotona Princeps) Cliff (nostri-imago on flickr) / Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 GenericPikas have a tail but it is not prominent. In fact, their "buried" tail is longer (relative to their body size) when compared with other lagomorphs.
  • Pikas do not hibernate. They are herbivores that rely on various types of vegetation (stored in haypiles) to survive year-round. They are known to tunnel through snow to access their food stores, but they do not burrow. Pikas make their home among the talus rocks in "dens."
  • If their habitat reaches 75 degrees F (23 degrees C), pikas can die within 1 hour.
  • Pikas "cure" vegetation in haypiles which can be as large as a bathtub and they will vigorously defend their stack.
  • To alert others, pikas have various calls. Apparently, a short call is used to defend a haypile or announce a predator in the area. It usually consists of one or two notes. A long call, only made by males, is a series of short notes. Long calls tend to occur during mating season.

Can You Find the Pika?

They Are Well-Camouflaged in Their Environment

Credit: William Andrus (wandrus on flickr) / Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic

Global Warming and the American Pika

Like the Canary in a Coal Mine

World Wildlife Fund (WWF) states the American pika could be the first mammal victim of climate change. The NWF and numerous organizations are in agreement: American pikas could be the first species with the distinction of going extinct due to global warming. 

PikaJim Kravitz (jimmypk on flickr) / Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 GenericFortunately, I found the following projects and wonderful resources online for those who want to help and know more about pikas:

Pikas in Peril Project - funded by the National Park Service Climate Change Response Program

Pika Research and Conservation at Craighead Institute - if you've seen a pika, there is a survey you can fill out to help them track pika distribution

Front Range Pika Project - the general public is invited to take part in a citizen-science program focused on the American pika

Pika Works - created for those who study, protect and enjoy pikas

Next, enjoy a short clip of Sir David Attenborough and the American pika from the BBC's Life of Mammals series. 

American Pika

Published on Dec. 2nd, 2012 by lifeonearthclips

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