The American Pika: More Than Just a Cute Face

Pikas are the West’s foremost charismatic alpine denizen; they alert you to their whereabouts, they are cute like rabbits (because they are), and scurry around on talus fields with the season’s finest selections of fresh cut flowers. Here are some lesser known facts about pikas:

  • Pikas eat their scat. Pikas rely on bacteria in their large intestine to digest cellulose, a large component of their diet. They defecate soft pellets that contain high amounts of nutrients released by the bacteria, especially vitamin B, and then eat this scat to absorb more nutrients.
  • Pikas are well adapted to cold. They have brown fat that is specialized to produce heat, which is also abundant in human babies. Pikas have a dense winter coat that they can fluff up. They also have dense fur on the soles of their feet!
  • Pika basal metabolic rate is high and so is their body temperature, with an average temperature of 104°F. On hot summer days, the only way they can regulate their body temperature is to find cool, dark spaces.

The Conservation Research Center is in its 2nd year of a research project looking at pika distribution, and factors that influence their presence in western Wyoming. This year we – myself and another technician- completed 109 random survey points on the Bridger-Teton National Forest. We worked in remote areas north from the Teton Wilderness and south to the Kemmerer area. Throughout our travels, we encountered pikas living outside their typical talus habitat such as in dead trees, under live trees and in logging slash piles. To investigate this further, we have temperature loggers recording temperatures in a few of these unique locations. We are intrigued by the possibility of pikas exhibiting adaptive behaviors in the face of altered climate patterns. Stay tuned for further project findings!Photo courtesy of Chuck Harris.

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