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NATURAL HISTORY

AMERICAN PIKA } Ochotona princeps
FAMILY: Ochotonidae

The genus name Ochotona stems from the Mongolian word for pikas, ochodona. The species name princeps comes from the Latin word for chief, referring to the Chipewyan Indian name for the pika: “little chief hare.” The word pika comes from the name used by the Tunguses tribe in northeast Siberia. American pikas have historically also been referred to by such common names as cony, rock rabbit, mouse hare, whistling hare, and piping hare.

DESCRIPTION: The American pika is a small, herbivorous mammal with thick, light brown fur. It is about six to eight inches long and weighs four to six ounces. The animal is generally egg-shaped, with rounded ears, short legs, and no visible tail.

HABITAT: American pikas primarily live in rocky talus slopes near alpine meadows, but are sometimes found at rocky areas along streams and in lava fields adjacent to appropriate vegetation.

RANGE: The American pika is broken into 36 subspecies based on geography and assumed metapopulation structure. Pikas inhabit mountainous regions throughout the western United States and Canada: the Rocky Mountains from northern New Mexico to central British Columbia, the Great Basin, and the Sierra Nevada of California through the Cascade Range of Oregon and Washington.

MIGRATION: The American pika does not migrate, but juveniles may disperse to new habitat or nearby populations. They are known to disperse as far as two kilometers, and historically may have dispersed as far as 20 kilometers.

BREEDING: Pikas form mated pairs each spring before snowmelt. Females bear one or two litters of two to four pups. Pikas are born blind and helpless; pups open their eyes at nine days old and generally head out on their own by four weeks old.

LIFE CYCLE: American pikas can live to be seven years old.

FEEDING: American pikas are generalist herbivores; most water needs are met through consumed plants. They collect vegetation and store it in haypiles as a food source for the winter months. Different plants are harvested at different times, as the nutritional value for the plants changes throughout the growing season.

THREATS: Major threats include climate change, livestock grazing, and human disturbance. Global warming represents the gravest threat to the long-term survival of the American pika by increasing the average air temperature and the frequency of high-temperature events, which can cause pika mortality from overheating. In addition, projected increases in temperatures, increases in droughts and floods, reduced snowpack leading to “false spring” conditions, and earlier seasonal runoff may significantly alter the composition, biomass, water content, reliability, and phenology of vegetation in alpine habitat. The range of potential pika habitat is expected to shift upslope in response to increasing temperatures.

POPULATION TREND: Studies of American pika populations in the Great Basin range of Nevada and southern Oregon and in the Sierra Nevada range of California have found recent population losses, resulting in upslope shifts in range. In the Great Basin, average elevations of pika populations have risen as much as 900 feet (275 meters) in recent decades, lower elevation sites have been lost, and nine of 25 historic pika populations have recently been extirpated.

OF SPECIAL INTEREST: Pikas will cache plants with high concentrations of toxic chemicals in the haypiles that sustain them during the winter months. The toxins act like a natural preservative that make the plants last longer. Pikas will eventually eat these plants in late winter after the toxins break down.
Photo by John J . Mosesso