The American pika is a small rabbit that lives in alpine regions of the southwest of Canada and in the west of the U.S. It is a relatively smaller and cuter member of the lagomorph family of rabbits and hares. American pikas are hardworking herbivores that gather flowers and plants to store for winter. The polar bear has for years been the global warming movement’s symbol. But the American pika today has good reason to compete for this unwanted honor with the polar bear. These rabbits are suffering as a result of global warming bringing higher temperatures to their high, cool, moist mountain ecosystems. Higher temperatures can make pikas overheat, and they live so high up that there is nowhere else for them to go.
The American pika lives in southwest Canada and the western U.S. These cute rabbits can also be seen in Oregon, Colorado, Utah, Idaho, New Mexico, California, and Montana. They inhabit alpine terrain on mountains above the tree line. They are found on rock faces, cliffs, and talus near mountain meadows, talus being a rocky area on cliff sides, slopes, or hillsides.
American pikas are adapted to very inhospitable environments, living where most other mammals avoid going - the treeless slopes on mountains: a very rocky, cold, and treacherous habitat for the tiny pika. These animals help protect themselves through their life in colonies. They live close to other pikas and they will alert the group about predators by giving a warning call. Although this species lives in colonies, they are extremely territorial over the den and surrounding area. An individual will make territorial calls to define its boundaries with its neighbor. Pikas usually have their den and nest sites below rock around 0.2-1 m in diameter, but often sit on larger and more prominent rocks. They rely on existing spaces in the talus for homes and do not dig burrows. However, they can enlarge their homes by digging. These tiny animals are active during the daytime and do not hibernate in winter, being active throughout the year. In winter they tend to spend most of their time inside the den. They eat stored grasses and venture out to forage if the weather permits. You will often hear a pika before you can see it, as they call and sing to define or protect their territory, warn others of danger and attract mates. Their call sounds like a bleating lamb, but squeakier and more high-pitched.
American pikas are herbivores (graminivores) and their favorite foods are grasses, weeds, and the tall wildflowers growing in their high mountain habitat. They are also coprophagic (i.e. they eat their own feces which have high energy value and protein content).
American pikas are monogamous (one male mates with one female), and an adult from a neighboring territory is sought as a mate. When there is more than one possible mate available, females may make a choice. American pikas start to breed from early to mid-spring. Two litters of 2-6 young are produced each year, after a gestation of 30 days. However, often only one litter survives as long as the weaning stage. Births usually start in May, with a peak in June, but at lower elevations may be as early as March. At birth, the young are entirely dependent on their mother. During the period of nursing, the mother spends a lot of time away from her nest, returning every two hours or so to nurse her infants. After about a month the young are weaned, and they reach adult size in 3 months. After a year they are able to breed.
The major threat to American pikas is global climate change, this species being in line to become the first North American mammal to be a victim of this threat. A study carried out from 1994 to 1999 found that 7 out of 25 American pika populations that were monitored had become extinct, partly due to climate change. This species is particularly vulnerable to this danger, as its habitat is the cool, relatively moist alpine climate. As temperatures rise, animals living in the mountains may move higher to find suitable habitat but this option is not open to the American pika, as it already lives so high up. As it has adapted to living in mountainous areas that are not often above freezing temperatures, it can die even after only a few hours of exposure to temperatures like 78 degrees F.
There are no estimates of population numbers for American pika. Currently, this species is classified as Least Concern (LC); however, its numbers today are decreasing.