Species Spotlight: Pika

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.

More Articles from Winter 2010

In Alaska's war on predators, politics trumps science
Offshore wind power is a promising clean energy source, but can it be made safe for birds?
As the planet warms, protecting rivers in the arid Southwest becomes even more crucial
Once every three years, representatives gather from the 175 nations that have signed on to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).
Along Highway 160 in southwestern Colorado, the movement of deer and elk mark the changing seasons.
Once every three years, representatives gather from the 175 nations that have signed on to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).
In the back room, endangered pangolins—scaly, armored mammals native to Southeast Asia and parts of Africa—were being "processed." The armadillo-like animals were skinned; their valuable scales removed; organs, blood and fetuses separated out; and the remaining meat boiled.
The canine carnage continued in the northern Rockies this fall: As this issue went to press, more than 180 wolves had been killed in Montana and Idaho, eight of them just outside the border of Yellowstone National Park.
A new poison is on the menu in Great Plains states, where ranchers claim that burrowing, grass-eating prairie dogs degrade pasture land.
[T]hose who also care about the survival of the greatest wild cats, dogs and wolves of the world hope that The Great Cats and Rare Canids Act will pass in the Senate in 2010.
After being hunted to near extinction about a century ago, sea otters have struggled to recover—facing threats such as oil spills, fishing gear entrapment, food supply shortages and diseases.
Lynx Driven to the Brink; The Right Thing to Do; Living with Wildlife

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