Found throughout the Cascade Mountains of Washington state, parts of Crater Lake National Park, and other high-elevation rocky areas of the American West, the American Pika is a small, round animal that’s only 6-8 inches long and about the size of a tennis ball. Pikas are relatives of rabbits and can be seen running around the rocky terrain of the Cascades with a mouth full of wildflowers. Their relationship to rabbits and their rocky habitat has actually earned them the nickname ‘rock rabbit’! This animal have a herbivore diet that consists of grasses, weeds, and wildflowers that can be found in a rocky mountain habitat. In fact, pikas will collect extra wildflowers to place in the sun and dry them out to store for winter!
These little mammals don’t hibernate during the winter but will spend most of the season in their dens. These dens are built among rocks and while pikas often live in colonies, they can be incredibly territorial about their dens. They’re often heard before being seen and their calls sound like a high-pitched and squeaky bleat, which you can actually hear below.
Despite the fact that pikas are incredibly cute but tough animals, these little mammals are having a difficult time because of climate change. They rely on their brown/black coat coloration and thick fur to survive the cold, windy, and rocky landscape they call home. During the summer, pikas have a lighter coat but it’s still thick enough to cause possibly fatal overheating in higher temperatures. In fact, even a short time in 78°F weather is too hot for pikas.
This inability to adapt to rising temperatures is a major reason the American Pika is struggling to survive in an ever-warming world. Pikas already live so high up on mountains that there really is nowhere else for them to get a colder environment. In addition to rising temperatures, pikas are impacted by climate change’s damaging effects on vegetation changes, new and invasive predators/pests, reduced winter snow, and more frequent extreme weather events.
Pikas are a climate indicator species because of the very narrow range of climatic conditions in which they can survive. These small mammals are found in the high-elevation rocky terrains of California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming. The Front Range Pika Project is a Colorado-based research project that’s managed by the Denver Zoo and Rocky Mountain Wild organization. This project relies on community scientists/volunteers to help with long-term monitoring and conservation of pika populations.
This type of research is important for pika populations and for seeing the various impacts of climate change. In 2010, the US Fish & Wildlife Service cited the uncertainty of climate change’s impact on pikas in their decline to list pikas as threatened or endangered. There seems to be speculation in academic circles on pika population numbers in the American West and the effects of climate change on the animal.