Collared pikas live in central and southern Alaska and parts of Canada in boulder fields. It is the only pika found in Alaska. They are lesser known but nonetheless charismatic members of the order Lagomorpha and are closely related to rabbits and hares. "Pika" comes from the Siberian word for this animal, "puka." They are called "coneys," "rock rabbits," and "little chief hares" In North America. All except two of the 30 species of pika alive today occur in Asia, which is probably where they originated. They have stocky bodies, large round ears, short legs, and almost no tail. The "collar" from which the Collared pika gets its name is a distinct grayish patch on its shoulder and neck, which is in definite contrast with the white fur on the chest and stomach. A pika has fur-covered feet, but its toe pads are bare. Its sharp, curved claws help it climb easily from rock to rock. Pikas are highly alert, and have excellent hearing and vision.
Collared pikas live in central and southern Alaska and parts of Canada, including in the west in the Northwest Territories and in northern British Columbia, Yukon. They live in mountainous terrain with large boulders and talus slopes, which often have rock slides. They prefer to live at the edges of talus slopes, where there are meadows and areas of high-quality vegetation immediately nearby. Collared pikas also sometimes live in areas close to sea level in Alaska and British Columbia.
Habits and lifestyle
Collared pikas are asocial animals and constantly chase away intruders to defend their territory. They are mainly solitary, but are sometimes seen in pairs. They do not burrow but instead take shelter within their talus habitats. Collared pikas are diurnal and they do not hibernate in winter. Much of the day they spend grazing or gathering vegetation to store for winter, a foraging behavior called "haying." They rarely forage further than 10 m from the talus into meadows. An individual may build several haystacks within its home range and tends to each year inhabit the same location, usually under overhanging rocks, along boulders and in crevices. Both the males and females of this species are very vocal. A pika's call is unmistakable once you have heard it: a single, piercing note like “ank” or “ink” heard over several hundred yards. These animals vocalize often during hay gathering.
Diet and nutrition
A Collared pika is a generalist herbivore (folivore), eating the leaves and stems of various grasses, small shrubs and forbs. They consume their soft fecal pellets to reduce the loss of nutritional value in their food. They sometimes eat birds, which provide them with protein and fat. They will also eat low-lying vegetation such as lichen that is under the snow during the winter.
This species tends to mate with the nearest neighbors, a system known as ‘facultatively (functionally) monogamous.’ In monogamous behavior, males mate only with one female. The breeding season peaks from May to early June. Females produce up to two litters per year, of 2 to 6 young, born in nests within the talus. 30 days is the period of gestation. A Collared pika is born blind and almost hairless. Females are responsible for the majority of parental care. Young remain in their nest for about 30 days before being weaned, when they emerge to the surface. Adult size is reached after just 40 to 50 days. They are sexually mature where they are one year old.
While there is no apparent concern for Collared pikas at this time, climate change could be a threat, as they are sensitive to high temperatures in their environment, and the high elevation habitats to which they are restricted are declining as a result of climate change.
According to IUCN, the Collared pika is common and widespread throughout its range but no overall population estimate is available. Currently this species is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List.
The Collared pika is a key species that is consumed by numerous predators (ermines, weasels, foxes, owls, eagles). Their hay piles could provide food for other herbivorous mammals. Collared pikas impact grass and herbaceous plant species in their high elevation habitats.
Fun facts for kids
- Collared pikas are the only pika species found in Alaska.
- As they look like small rabbits, naturalists at first called Collared pikas coneys or rock rabbits. "Coney" is a generic word for many small mammals that live amongst rocks, including pika and hyrax.
- These animals are kleptoparasitic and steal food from one another.
- Collared pikas are easily found because you can hear their alarm call when you walk past them. Although heard, these animals are not necessarily so easy to see because they are camouflaged perfectly amongst the rocks. You need to focus on where the call is coming from and watch out for movement among rocks, or the pika's silhouette against the sky.
- Collared pikas sit to call with their body hunched up and their nose pointed slightly into the air.
- Once close to its home territory, the Collared pika may approach within several meters, if you stay very quiet and still for a few minutes.