I once spent an entire day observing pikas for a research course. After a full day of recording whether our particular animal was running, sitting, eating, calling, watching, etc, I was either going to leave despising them or loving them: I don’t think it is possible to despise them. I will still spend hours trying to photograph them while hiking in alpine environments, to the dismay of some of my hiking companions and the pleasure of others.
Pikas are related to rabbits and you can see the similarity. They have small round bodies with thick fur. They have round ears and furry paws. They are adapted to cool weather and can die from overheating if they can’t escape. They dry food, grasses and other plants, in hay piles so that it doesn’t mold and then store it underground so that they have something to eat throughout the winter when they can’t find food.
Their fur is brown and black , which camouflages them in their rocky environments. As a consequence, hikers quite often hear pikas before they see them. They call to define their territory, alert others to danger, and attract mates. It sounds like a high pitched “eep”.
Pikas are more affected by climate change than many other organisms because they already live at such high elevations that they have no place to go when temperatures increase. Even in summer their fur coat, which is thinner than it is in the winter, is too warm to venture far out of the high alpine. Then there is also the risk of changing predators and food sources as other species adapt to changing environments. Decreasing snow pack, which provides insulation to the pikas homes during the winter, may also have an impact, although more research has to be done. Increasing temperatures can also isolate populations by preventing individuals from migrating between colonies. This will affect survival rates, as well as genetic diversity.
Already pika populations are declining. They have disappeared from one third of the habitat in Oregon and Nevada in the US. A study in Banff National Park in Canada aims to monitor pika populations by monitoring their active and inactive hay piles (the piles they use to dry their food) which are passed down between generations.
One cannot deny the charismatic nature of the pika. I hope that they are still around for generations down the road to enjoy the scurrying as they carry mouthfuls of grass to their different hay piles. They are worth making changes for.
Check out this video from Parks Canada of a pika’s winter preparation.