North American Pika

Common Name: American Pika
Class: Mammalia
Order: Lagomorpha
Family: Ochotonidae
Genus: Ochonta
Species: Ochonta princeps

photo M. Noonan

American Pika Taxonomy/Description

North American pikas belong to the Mammalian Order Lagomorpha, in the pika family, Ochotonidae. Lagomorpha includes all species of rabbits, hares and pikas. The American pika's scientific name is Ochotona princeps. The generic name, ochotona, is derived from the Mongolian word for pika, ochodona. The specific name, princeps, means "chief or prince" in Latin, referencing a Native American word that translated to “Little Chief Hare”. The animal's scientific name means "chief pika".

Pikas are generally, small, compact animals. They have short ears and a tiny tail. Brown fur speckled with black covers their 6-8 inch long body. Adults usually weigh about six ounces. Lagomorphs superficially appear to resemble rodents. Although the orders Lagomorpha and Rodentia are closely related, lagomorphs are distinguished by a pair of tiny incisors that rest directly behind their large visible incisors.

American Pika Habitat/Diet

photo M. Noonan

American pikas inhabit high elevations of about 8,000-13,000ft throughout the North American West. Their range extends north into Canada through British Columbia, south into southern California, and to the eastern Rocky Mountains of Colorado. Pikas live above the montane treeline, between meadowland and rocky terrain. Taluses are other preferred locations, which are boulder piles at the bases sloping cliffs. Any high elevation area with numerous rocks and vegetation is an ideal habitat for a pika.

Pikas forage on a variety of vegetation, including sedges, grasses, thistle and fireweed. Some food is consumed on location, but most food is ferried back to the pika’s “haystack”. This is a pile of vegetation drying in the open air. Once vegetation dries, the pika will carry it to his den. This food will help him survive during times when extreme cold and snow prevent him from gathering new vegetation. The haystack often depletes over the winter break, so the pika must feed on cold weather growing lichen and cushion plants. These plants are accessed by tunnels through the snow.

American Pika Behavior/Reproduction

Pikas exhibit some fascinating behaviors. Primarily diurnal, pikas spend their days foraging, defending their territory and avoiding predators. Adults maintain territories, with male territories bordering female territories. These animals are very vocal, and have two distinct calling types. The first vocalization is described as a short, sharp warning call. The second vocalization is described as a song. This is much longer, and is usually performed during the breeding season. Breeding season begins about one month before the snow melts, somewhere between April and July.

photos M. Noonan

Gestation lasts about 30 days. Two to five altricial young are born. This means the baby pikas are born relatively undeveloped, requiring large amounts of parental care. In fact, newborn pikas are completely dependent upon their mother for 18 days. The first litter is weaned at 3-4 weeks. A second litter is sometimes produced, but the young pikas are not weaned until the next spring. Pikas reach full size in about three months. Their lifespan is three years.

American Pika Conservation

Pika survival has recently been spotlighted by opponents of global warming. Pikas are alpine obligates, requiring the cool climate and sparsely vegetated habitat above the treeline of mountains. If the global temperature were to increase, the habitat in which they live would support more vegetation and wildlife, and ultimately more predators. Also, as climate warms, pika populations are unable to interbreed. Travel from one suitable location on a mountain to another hospitable place on a second mountain is fatal due to warm temperatures.


Content provided by Canisius College students under the direction of Michael Noonan, PhD.