American pika (Ochotona princeps)

Also known as: cony, hay-maker, mouse-hare, piping hare, rock rabbit, Rocky Mountain pika, southern pika, whistling hare
KingdomAnimalia
PhylumChordata
ClassMammalia
OrderLagomorpha
FamilyOchotonidae
GenusOchotona (1)
SizeHead-body length: 16.2 - 21.6 cm (2)
Weight121 - 176 g (2)

The American pika is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1).

The American pika (Ochotona princeps) is a small member of the rabbit family that inhabits alpine regions of south-western Canada and the western U.S., where its populations are falling victim to global climate change. This endearing mammal is well-adapted to cold climates, with short, dense, silky, greyish-brown fur (2) (3) (4). The winter coat is greyer and nearly twice as long as the summer coat (5). The soles of the feet are densely furred, except for small black pads at the end of the toes. The American pika has relatively large, dark ears with white margins and hair on both sides (2). 

The American pika has an almost egg-shaped body and appears to lack a tail, but actually has the longest tail of any lagomorph; it is just buried amongst the dense fur. The hindlimbs are rather short for a lagomorph and appear much the same size as the forelimbs (2). The American pika is frequently seen hunched up on boulders of nearly the same colour as its fur (3).

The American pika is found in south-western Canada and the western U.S., where it has a widespread but discontinuous distribution (1).

The American pika inhabits isolated rocky areas within alpine regions called ‘talus formations’. In the northernmost parts of its range, the American pika is found at elevations between sea level and 3,000 metres, but in the southern parts of its range it is rarely found below 2,500 metres (1) (3) (5). 

Active throughout the day, the American pika lives in colonies in which individuals occupy and defend territories, with individuals usually living next to another of the opposite sex (3) (6). It feeds primarily on grasses and herbs and exhibits two very different foraging strategies: the direct consumption of food, and haying. Haying is restricted to the summer months after breeding, when the American pika collects and stores food in haypiles on rocks or in crevices. The food is stored for winter periods, when food is scarce and difficult to find (2). As a result of its haying behaviour, which modifies its habitat, the American pika is often called an ‘ecosystem engineer’ (3). When not dashing back and forth from its territory whilst foraging, the American pika spends much of its time sitting still, observing its surroundings and watching for predators such as coyotes, weasels, martens and stoats (6). 

Female American pikas give birth twice a year to a litter of around three, after a gestation period of 30 days. Often, however, only one litter actually survives to the weaning stage. Births typically begin in May, peaking in June, but may occur as early as March at lower elevations (1). During the nursing period, the female American pika spends long periods of time away from the nest, returning every couple of hours to nurse the infants (2). The young become independent around a month after birth, and females first breed at around a year old (6). The American pika may live up to seven years old (1). 

The American pika communicates by scent-marking with cheek glands, and with long and short vocalisations. Short calls are uttered as alarms and to announce that the pika is departing or returning from foraging, while male American pikas also perform a ‘song’ during the breeding season (6).

The most significant threat to the American pika is global climate change (1), and it is possible that this species will become the first mammal in North America to fall victim to this threat (3). A study conducted between 1994 and 1999 found that 7 of 25 monitored American pika populations had become extinct, partially due to climate change (7). The American pika is particularly vulnerable to climate change as it inhabits areas with cool, relatively moist climates in alpine regions. As temperatures rise, montane animals may seek higher altitudes in an attempt to find suitable habitat. The American pika, however, already occupies high altitudes, meaning it has little refuge from the pressures of climate change (3). 

The discontinuous distribution of its habitat also means that the American pika cannot readily move been areas of suitable habitat. Furthermore, individuals tend to spend their entire lifespan within a half-mile radius, meaning they are unlikely to move in response to climate change. Migration across low-elevation valleys in search of new habitat would also pose a great risk to the American pika, by exposing it to predators and increasing the potential for road collisions. In addition, climate change could result in the earlier maturation of vegetation in the American pika’s habitat, which could decrease food availability at certain times of the year (3). 

The adverse effects of climate change on the American pika are compounded by additional threats that include habitat loss. Domestic and feral cattle pose a particularly significant threat and evidence suggests that American pika populations are smaller where this species’ habitat is grazed by cattle. Non-native plant species are also spreading across the American pika’s habitat, partially due to human-caused wildfires, which may reduce the amount of food available to this species (1). 

In view of its decreasing populations, six subspecies of the American pika are categorised by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as ‘Species of Concern’, meaning it is important that their populations are monitored: Ochotona princeps barnesi, Ochotona princeps cinnamomea, Ochotona princeps clamosa, Ochotona princeps lasalensis, Ochotona princeps moorei, Ochotona princeps nigrescens, Ochotona princeps wasatchensis (8).  

The American pika is afforded protection in a number of reserves, and it is illegal to hunt this species throughout its range (1). Conservationists have also petitioned the U.S. government to list the American pika under the Endangered Species Act, which would facilitate the conservation of this species and its habitat. However, this was initially rejected by the government (9). 

Conservation priorities for the American pika include developing management plans for its populations, with further research into its population numbers, trends and range, as well as its habitat status and threats, and the identification of new protected areas (1).

Find out more about the American pika:

This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:
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  1. IUCN Red List (March, 2011)
    http://www.iucnredlist.org/
  2. Smith, T.A. and Weston, M.L. (1990) American pika Ochotona princeps. Mammalian Species, 352: 1-8.
  3. WWF – American pika (March, 2011)
    http://www.worldwildlife.org/species/finder/americanpika/americanpika.html
  4. BBC Wildfacts – American pika (March, 2011)
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/nature/wildfacts/factfiles/610.shtml
  5. Chapman, J.A. and Flux, J.E.C. (1990) Rabbits, Hares and Pikas: Status Survey and Conservation Action Plan. IUCN, Gland, Switzerland.
  6. Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History – American pika (March, 2011)
    http://www.mnh.si.edu/mna/image_info.cfm?species_id=225
  7. Beever, E.A., Brussard, P.F. and Berger, J. (2003) Patterns of apparent extirpation among isolated populations of pikas (Ochotona princeps) in the Great Basin. Journal of Mammalogy, 84(1): 37-54.
  8. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (March, 2011)
    http://www.fws.gov/
  9. Reis, P. (2010) Obama Admin Denies Endangered Species Listing for American Pika. New York Times. Available at:
    http://www.nytimes.com/gwire/2010/02/05/05greenwire-obama-admin-denies-endangeres-species-listing-73387.html