8 Things You Didn't Know About American Pikas

Rocky mountain pika perched on a rock
milehightraveler / Getty Images

The American pika is as elusive as it is cute, hiding away in the highest parts of the U.S. and Canada, where it blends in with the only thing around it — bare rocks, no trees. With its camouflage coat and lamb-like bleating, it is often heard before it is seen. The tiny balls of fur may look like rodents, but they're more closely related to a certain big-eared, below-ground dweller. Oh, and they have invisible tails. Learn more about the mountain-loving mammals and why they're in danger.

1. Pikas Are Related to Rabbits

The pika may look like it belongs to the order Rodentia with its hamster-like size, short, rounded ears, and dense coat, but it's actually a species of the order Lagomorpha, which also contains rabbits and hares. They differ from their relatives quite drastically, though, boasting no pointy ears, only tiny hind legs, and fur on the soles of their feet. While the average brown hare is between 20 and 30 inches long, the average American pika grows to be only 7 to 8 inches long.

2. They Are Very Territorial

Pikas are very exposed in their high-altitude homes, so they live in colonies for protection. Still, they're extremely territorial of their own rock dens and surrounding area, the National Wildlife Federation says, and tend to lead solitary lives even though they stick together. They break their solitary spells only during the breeding seasons, usually once during spring and once during summer.

3. They Live High in the Mountains

According to the National Wildlife Federation, American pikas lived throughout North America after crossing the land bridge from Asia to Alaska thousands of years ago, but the species has since retreated to higher ground in favor of cooler climates. They now live in the highest parts of New Mexico, California, Colorado, Oregon, Washington, and Western Canada, rarely seen below 8,200 feet in more southern territory.

4. They Protect Their Territory by Bleating Loudly

Collared pika on a rock, with its mouth open
Chase Dekker Wild-Life Images / Getty Images

American pikas are famously vocal. They chirp, sing, and scream in an effort to protect their territory. The high-pitched, squeaky noise they make is more like bleating, like a lamb, the National Wildlife Federation says. In any case, they use their signature call to alert others in the colony of an approaching predator, to establish boundaries, and in some cases, to attract mates.

5. Pikas Have Fun Nicknames

The American pika's relationship to rabbits and hares is apparent not in its appearance but, rather, in its nicknames. That shrill whistle it sends up like a smoke signal in the presence of danger has earned it the nickname "whistling hare." On the other hand, its ability to blend in seamlessly with its drab environment has caused some to call it a "rock rabbit," a nod to its meadow-dwelling relative.

6. They Gather a Lot of Vegetation for Winter

Pika with flowers in its mouth
erniedecker / Getty Images

Pikas spend a great deal of time gathering flowers and grasses for winter, but they don't hibernate. Rather, their tendency to gather is a preparation for harsh winters at high elevation. According to the National Park Service, they cure the vegetation they collect on rocks in the sun, then store their piles under rocks for safekeeping, occasionally moving them so they don't get rained on. A 1990 study by Colorado Parks & Wildlife showed these "haystacks," as they're called, weigh a whopping 61 pounds on average. That's an accumulation of 14,000 trips' worth of vegetation — 25 per hour — over a 10-week period.

7. They Have Tails, But You Can't See Them

You'd never know the American pika even had a tail by looking at it because its dense fur so perfectly obscures it. But the pika tail is, in fact, the longest of any lagomorph's (relative to its body size), beating out its rabbit relative's signature cotton ball-like tuft and the hare's stubby scut. It's just too buried beneath that thick winter coat to be visible.

8. Pikas Are in Danger

Climate change has put the American pika in great danger. As the planet warms, many species shift their habitat toward the poles or higher up in the mountains to escape the heat; however, the pika is already an alpine-dwelling creature, and there is no higher territory for it to escape. The National Wildlife Federation likens it to the polar bear as a climate change symbol. The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) lists it as a species of Least Concern, but notes that declining populations are not likely to rebound because pikas can't return to habitats they've lost to extreme temperatures.

Save the American Pika

  • Widespread commitment to a low-carbon future is required to save the species — as an individual, you can take The Nature Conservancy's pledge to help the organization lobby for climate action.
  • Protect pikas' natural habitats by sticking to marked trails and remaining vigilante while hiking.
  • Support conservation efforts by symbolically adopting a pika from the National Wildlife Federation or more localized organizations such as Rocky Mountain Wild.
View Article Sources
  1. "Extensive Survey Shows Pikas Thrive in Colorado." Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

  2. "American Pika is an Indicator Species for Detecting Climate Change." National Park Service.

  3. "American Pikas." International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species.