The pika is a small, short-legged and virtually tailless ovoid mammal native to the mountains of western North America and much of Asia. Despite their small size, body shape and round ears, pikas are not rodents, but the smallest representatives of lagomorphs, otherwise this group is represented by hares and rabbits (hare family).

Photo: Pika

Pikas have many common names, most of which apply to specific forms or species. The names mouse-hare are sometimes used, although the pika is neither a mouse nor a hare. The name of the genus comes from the Mongolian ochodona, and the term “pika” — “pika” — comes from the folk “piik” of the Tungus, a tribe from northeastern Siberia.

Pishukha — the only living genus of the family Zaciiformes whose members lack some of the special skeletal modifications present in hares and rabbits (the hare family), such as a strongly convex skull, a relatively vertical head position, strong hind limbs and pelvic girdle, and elongation of the limbs.

Video: Pike

The pika family was clearly differentiated from other lagomorphs back in the Oligocene epoch. The pika first appeared in the Pliocene fossil record in Eastern Europe, Asia, and western North America. Its origin was probably in Asia. By the Pleistocene, the pika was found in the eastern United States and as far west in Europe as Great Britain.

This extensive distribution was followed by the limitation of its current range. One fossil pika (genus Prolagus) apparently lived in historical times. Her remains have been found in Corsica, Sardinia and neighboring small islands. Previously, fossil material was found on the Italian mainland. Apparently, it was still present until 2000 years ago, but was forced to disappear, probably due to habitat loss and competition and predation by introduced animals.

Appearance and Features

Photo: What a pika looks like

Photo: What a pika looks like

The 29 species of pikas are remarkably uniform in body proportions and position. Their fur is long and soft and usually greyish brown, although some species are rusty red. Unlike rabbits and hares, the hind limbs of pikas are not noticeably longer than the front ones. The feet, including the soles, are densely covered with hair, with five toes in front and four in the back. Most pikas weigh between 125 and 200 grams and are about 15 cm long.

An interesting fact: The average annual mortality of pikas is from 37 to 53%, and age-related mortality is highest for children aged 0 to 1 and 5 to 7 years. The maximum age of pikas in the wild and in captivity is 7 years, and the average lifespan in the wild is 3 years.

In certain parts of their range, males are larger than females, but only a little. Their body is ovoid, with short ears, long vibrissae (40-77 mm), short limbs, and no visible tail. Their hind feet are digitally shaped, have four toes (versus the front's five), and are 25 to 35 mm long.

Both sexes have pseudoclacal openings that must be opened to expose the penis or clitoris. Females have six mammary glands that do not enlarge during lactation. Pikas have a high body temperature (average 40.1°C) and a relatively low upper lethal temperature (average 43.1°C). They have a high metabolic rate, and their thermoregulation is behavioral, not physiological.

Interesting fact: The pika's fur color changes with the season, but retains an off-white hue on its ventral surface. On the dorsal surface, the fur varies from grayish to cinnamon brown in summer. In winter, their dorsal fur is gray and twice as long as their summer coat.

Their ears are round, covered with dark hair on the inner and outer surfaces, and edged with white. Their paws are densely covered with hair, including the soles, with the exception of small black bare pads at the ends of the fingers. Their skull is slightly rounded, with a flat, wide interorbital region.

Where does the pika live?

Photo: Pika in Russia

Photo: Pika in Russia

Pika is usually found in mountainous areas at high elevations. Two species are found in North America, the rest are found mainly throughout Central Asia. 23 of them live wholly or partly in China, especially on the Tibetan Plateau.

There are two distinctly different ecological niches occupied by pikas. Some live only in piles of broken rock (talus), while others live in grassland or steppe environments where they build burrows. North American species and about half of Asian species live in rocky habitats and do not burrow. Rather, their nests are made deep in the labyrinth of screes adjacent to alpine meadows or other suitable vegetation.

The bird has been found in Alaska and northern Canada on isolated nunataks (rocks or peaks surrounded by glaciers) in Kluane National Park. It has also been spotted at an altitude of 6,130 meters on the slopes of the Himalayas. The pika with the largest distribution, the northern pika, ranges from the Urals to the east coast of Russia and the island of Hokkaido in northern Japan. Although the northern pika is considered a typical species that lives on screes, it also lives in rocky areas in coniferous forests, where it burrows under fallen logs and stumps.

Now you know where the pika is found. Let's see what the rodent eats.

What does the pika eat?

Photo: Pika Rodent

Photo: Pika Rodent

Pika — it is a herbivore and therefore has a diet based on vegetation.

The pika is a diurnal animal and feeds during the daytime on the following foods:

  • grass;
  • seeds;
  • weeds;
  • thistles;
  • berries.

Pikas eat some of their harvested plants fresh, but most become part of their winter stocks. Much of their short summer is spent gathering plants to create haystacks. Once the haystack is complete, they start another one.

Pikas do not hibernate, and they are generalized herbivores. Where snow surrounds their environment (as is often the case), they build caches of vegetation called hayfields to provide food during the winter. A characteristic behavior of rock pikas in the summer is their repeated trips to meadows adjacent to screes to collect plants for hay.

Fun Fact: One of the oft-repeated but false stories is that pikas place their hay on rocks to dry before storing it. Most likely pikas will carry their food straight into the hay if left undisturbed.

Like other lagomorphs, pikas practice coprophagy to obtain additional vitamins and nutrients from their relatively poor quality food. Pikas create two types of fecal droppings: a hard, brown, round granule and a soft, shiny thread of material (blind granule). The pika consumes the caecal sludge (which has a high energy value and protein content) or stores it for later consumption. Only about 68% of the food consumed is digested, making caecum pellets an important part of the pika's diet.

Character and lifestyle features

Photo: Pika Animal

Photo: Pika Animal

The degree of social behavior varies depending on the species of pika. Rock pikas are relatively asocial and occupy widely spaced, scent-marked territories. They make their presence known to each other by making frequent short calls (usually “enk” or “eh-ehh”). Thus, rock-dwelling pikas are able to track their neighbors, encountering them directly only once or twice a day. Such encounters usually result in aggressive harassment.

In contrast, burrowing pikas live in family groups and these groups occupy and defend a common territory. Within the group, social encounters are numerous and generally friendly. Pikas of all ages and both sexes may groom each other, wipe their noses, or sit side by side. Aggressive encounters, usually in the form of long pursuits, only occur when an individual from one family group trespasses the territory of another.

The burrowing pika also has a much larger vocal repertoire than the rock pika. Many of these calls signal cohesion within family groups, especially among juveniles from successive litters or between males and juveniles. All pikas make short alarm calls when they see predators. Males make a long call or song during the mating season.

Unlike rabbits and hares, pikas are active during the day, with the exception of nocturnal steppe pikas. Being mostly alpine or boreal species, most pikas are adapted to life in cold conditions and cannot tolerate heat. When temperatures are high, they limit their activities to the early morning and late afternoon.

Social Structure and Reproduction

Photo: Steppe pika

Photo: Steppe pika

There is a contrast between rock pikas and burrowing pikas, which extends to their breeding as well. Rock pikas typically produce only two litters a year, and typically only one is successfully weaned. It is believed that a second litter is only considered successful when the first offspring die at the beginning of the breeding season. The litter size of most mountain dwellers is low, but burrowing pikas can produce several large litters each season. The steppe pika has been reported to have litters of up to 13 pups and breed up to five times a year.

The mating season for pikas lasts from April to July. They may breed twice a year depending on their location. The gestation period lasts thirty days (one month). During the mating season, male and female pikas in opposite territories call each other and form a pair bond.

Pikas use traces of urine and feces when marking aromas. Cheek markings derived from apocrine sweat glands are used to attract potential mates and demarcate territories. They are common in both sexes who rub their cheeks on rocks. During the breeding season or when settling in a new territory, pikas rub their cheeks with increased frequency. Urine and faeces are usually placed hay as a sign of ownership.

A female pika is capable of producing two litters per year, but typically only one leads to successful juveniles. The female gives birth to 1 to 5 babies after a gestation period of about a month. When children are old enough to be independent, they often settle down next to their parents.

Interesting fact: Young individuals are completely dependent on their mother for at least 18 days. They have a fast growth rate and reach adult size when they are only 3 months old. The female weans her cubs 3-4 weeks after birth.

Pika natural enemies

Photo: Pika

Photo: Pika

Although the pika lives in regions where few other animals are present, it has many predators, mainly due to its small size. Weasel is the main predator of pikas, along with birds of prey, dogs, foxes and cats. Pikas are moderately camouflaged and when a potential predator is detected, they emit an alarm signal to inform the rest of the community of its presence. Alarm calls are made less frequently for small predators, as small predators may chase them into gaps in the scree.

Small predators consist of long-tailed weasels (Mustela frenata) and stoats (Mustela erminea). Large predators such as coyotes (Canis latrans) and American martens (Martes Americana) are especially adept at capturing juveniles that are not fast enough to avoid. Golden eagles (Aquila chrysaetos) also feed on pikas, but their impact is minimal.

Thus, the known predators of pikas are:

  • coyotes (Canis Latrans);
  • long-tailed weasels (Mustela frenata);

  • stoats (Mustela erminea);
  • American martens (Martes Americana);
  • golden eagles (Aquila chrysaetos);
  • foxes (Vulpes Vulpes);
  • Northern hawks (Accipiter gentilis);
  • red-tailed hawks (Buteo jamaicensis);
  • prairie falcons (Falcom mexicanus);
  • common ravens (Corvus corax).

Population and species status

Photo: What a pika looks like

Photo: What a pika looks like

There are striking differences between pikas that inhabit rocky terrain and those that build burrows in open habitats. Rock dwellers tend to be long lived (up to seven years) and occur at low densities, with populations tending to be stable over time. In contrast, burrowing pikas rarely live more than one year, and their widely fluctuating populations can be 30 times denser or more. These dense populations fluctuate widely.

Most pikas live in areas remote from humans, however, given the high densities achieved by some burrowing pikas, they are considered pests on the Tibetan Plateau, where they are thought to reduce livestock feed and damage pastures. In response, Chinese government agencies poisoned them over vast expanses. A recent analysis, however, has shown that such control efforts may be misguided, as the pika is a key biodiversity species in this region.

Four Asian pikas – three in China, one in Russia and Kazakhstan – are listed as endangered species. One of them, Kozlov's pika (O. koslowi) from China was originally collected by Russian explorer Nikolai Przhevalsky in 1884, and it took about 100 years before it was seen again. Not only is this species apparently rare, but it may be at risk of poisoning as part of pika control efforts.

Climate change threatens the future of this species as it is physiologically intolerant of high temperatures and because its habitat is becoming increasingly unsuitable. Unlike many species of wildlife that are moving their ranges north or to higher altitudes in response to climate change, pikas have nowhere else to go. In some places, the entire pika population has already disappeared.

Pika Conservation

Photo: Pika from the Red Book

Photo: Pika from the Red Book

Of the thirty-six recognized pika subspecies, seven are listed as vulnerable and one — O.p. schisticeps is listed as endangered. Seven vulnerable subspecies (O. p. goldmani, O. p. lasalensis, O. p. nevadensis, O. p. nigrescens, O. p. obscura, O. p. sheltoni and O. p. tutelata) are found in the Great Basin and are currently facing serious threats that have led to local extermination.

The biggest threat to pikas, especially in the Great Basin — this is probably global climate change as they are extremely sensitive to high temperatures. Pikas can die within an hour if ambient temperatures rise above 23°C. Many population groups are expected to migrate north or move to higher ground. Unfortunately, pikas cannot change their habitat.

Various organizations have proposed placing pikas under the protection of the Endangered Species Act. Potential solutions to reduce local populations could include legislative changes to reduce global warming factors, raise awareness, identify new protected areas, and re-introduce in areas where they have been extirpated.

Pika & #8212; a small-sized mammal found throughout the Northern Hemisphere. Today, there are about 30 species of pikas in the world. Despite their rodent-like appearance, the pika is actually closely related to rabbits and hares. They are most often identified by their small, rounded body and lack of a tail.

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