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What is a Pika?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 21, 2024
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A pika is a mammal in the family Ochotonidae, placed among the same order as hares and rabbits. This rabbit relative can be found in North America and parts of Eurasia, and it strongly resembles a hamster, although pikas are not in fact closely related to the hamster. Some concerns about the pika have been raised, as these animals are vulnerable to habitat destruction and climate change, leading several species to be threatened, especially in North America.

You may also hear pikas called whistling hares, a reference to the strange whistling noises which some species make. They are also called mouse hares, rock rabbits, or central Asian rabbits. The name “pika” appears to come from the Russian word pikat, which means “to squeak.” These animals are extremely shy and very small, making it hard to see them in the wild unless one spends months studying them, but some zoos have pika populations for people who would like to get a closer look at the animal.

Pikas are brownish to gray in color, and they live primarily at high altitudes in rocky areas, using the crevices of the rocks for shelter. During the summer, the pika harvests and cures food to use during the lean months of the winter, as the animals are active year round. Most pikas are active primarily during the day, with some living in family colonies while others choose to live alone. Pikas bear litters of five to six individuals, and have a very short gestation period, like many of their rabbit relatives.

In North America, biologists are concerned about the impact of climate change on the pika. Normally, increasing temperatures would lead these animals to simply travel northwards in search of more hospitable climates. However, North American pikas have very restricted ranges, living on habitat islands in the midst of human civilization. As a result, they cannot migrate to find better places to live, and their habitats are rapidly being restricted even further due to encroachment.

In Eurasia, the plight of the pika is not as severe, although the animals are extensively hunted, and they are vulnerable to pollution and habitat encroachment as the expanding human population demands more space. In some areas, this animal is viewed as a pest, because it eats grain and other resources, and people may set out traps and poison to control the pika population. In addition to achieving the desired goal of reducing the numbers of pikas in the area, poison also hurts other animals in the same environment who use the pika as a source of food.

Frequently Asked Questions

What exactly is a pika?

A pika is a small, mountain-dwelling mammal related to rabbits and hares. They are known for their rounded ears, short limbs, and lack of a visible tail. Pikas are found in cold climates of North America and Asia, where they live among rocky slopes and feed on various plants. Their high-pitched calls are characteristic, often used to communicate with other pikas.

How does a pika adapt to its mountainous habitat?

Pikas are superbly adapted to their harsh mountainous environment. They have dense fur that insulates against the cold and a high metabolic rate to maintain body heat. Pikas do not hibernate; instead, they collect and store plant material in the summer to eat during the winter months. This behavior, known as "haying," is crucial for their survival in the snow-covered landscape.

Are pikas endangered?

The conservation status of pikas varies by species and location. Some pika species are considered to be of Least Concern by the IUCN, while others face threats from habitat loss and climate change. For instance, the Ili Pika of China is recognized as endangered due to its limited range and declining population, which has decreased by nearly 70% in the last 15 years.

What do pikas eat?

Pikas are herbivores, primarily feeding on a variety of alpine vegetation, including grasses, sedges, thistles, and other leafy plants. During the summer, they actively forage and create haypiles, which are caches of dried plants that they rely on for sustenance throughout the winter when food is scarce and the ground is covered in snow.

How do pikas communicate with each other?

Pikas communicate using both vocalizations and scent marking. They emit sharp, clear calls to establish territories and alert others to predators. These calls can vary in frequency and pitch, conveying different messages. Scent marking with cheek glands is also used to define territories and may play a role in mating rituals.

What are the main threats to pika populations?

Main threats to pika populations include climate change, habitat destruction, and disease. As temperature-sensitive animals, pikas are particularly vulnerable to warming climates, which can reduce their available habitat and force them to move to higher, cooler elevations. Human activities such as mining and development can also destroy or fragment their rocky slope habitats, further endangering their populations.

AllThingsNature is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a AllThingsNature researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By anon313983 — On Jan 15, 2013

Which zoos currently have pikas?

By BoatHugger — On Dec 16, 2010

Pikas have a very unusual way of communicating. The small chirp noises and shrill sounds are used to communicate with one another. They seem to be able to hear each other’s noises very clearly.

There are many different kinds of pikas. For example, the Asian pika is different than the North American pika. They are also fascinating to watch. They carry flowers and very long stems of grass that they use for burrowing. They travel with these long stems in their mouths down rocky slopes and difficult terrain to make large piles for hibernation.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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