Species Spotlight: Pika

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Pika, © Wendy Shattil & Bob Rozinski/naturepl.com

© Wendy Shattil & Bob Rozinski/naturepl.com
Dwelling high in western mountains, American pikas bear little resemblance to their closest cousin—the rabbit. More like hamsters in appearance, pikas lead a mostly solitary life, fiercely defending their rocky burrows from trespassing animals—especially other pikas—with piercing squeaks.

Once these home-bodies establish a territory, they like to stay put—gathering fresh grasses and flowers in piles to dry in the summer sun. Before snow covers its mountain home, a pika can store up two feet of this hay in its burrow to survive on during the winter months.

But lately, the pika’s population has plummeted, and researchers think climate change is to blame. Hotter summer temperatures may be keeping the cool-weather critters cooped up in their lairs and not allowing them enough time to gather food. Climate change could also be reducing the quality of their food and impacting their health.

Warmer winters with less snow are also a problem. Pikas depend on heavy snowfalls for shelter. A dense snow pack works like a blanket or an igloo—keeping temperatures in the burrow just above freezing. Without enough snow, pikas are exposed to sub-zero mountain winds that can freeze them to death.

No amount of squeaking from this rock rabbit is going to keep global warming at bay. But if the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service finally grants this mountain mammal the endangered status it’s due, the pika just might get some of the help it needs to weather this storm.

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