All pikas (PEE-kuhz) are similar in appearance, being small, compact mammals with large, round ears and short front and rear legs. They resemble guinea pigs in size and appearance, ranging in length from 5 to 12 inches (12.5 to 30.0 centimeters) and weighing 3.5 to 7 ounces (100 to 200 grams). Pikas lack a noticeable tail. They have long, soft fur that is usually gray or brown, often with red accents.
Pikas are found in the mountains of western North America, including Alaska and the Yukon, and the mountains and plains of central Asia, including the Himalayan and Ural mountain ranges. The countries they live in include Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nepal, Tibet, Bhutan, Russia, Japan, Mongolia, North Korea, and China.
Pikas are found in two distinct habitats. Some live among rocks and rocky areas. Others live in meadows, steppes (semiarid, grass-covered plains), shrubs and desert.
Pikas are herbivores, meaning they eat primarily plants.
BEHAVIOR AND REPRODUCTION
Pikas are mainly diurnal, active during the day. An exception is the steppe pika, which is nocturnal, meaning it is most active at night. They have several types of social structure. Those that live in rocky areas of North America are unsocial, with males and females having separate territories and rarely interacting except to mate. Pikas in rocky areas of Asia live in pairs within a communal territory. Burrowing pikas, in contrast, are extremely social animals. Families of up to thirty individuals live within burrows and there are about ten family groups within a territory. There is much interaction between family members, including grooming, playing, and sleeping together.
Pikas breed in the spring, with peak breeding occurring in May and early June. Female pikas reach sexual maturity as early as twenty-one days of age. The gestation, or pregnancy, period is about thirty days. Litters consist of one to thirteen babies and are cared for exclusively by the mother. Females breed for a second time shortly after the first litter is born and usually produce a second litter before the end of summer. Some pika species can have as many as five litters per years, including the Afghan pika, with each litter having up to eleven babies. Pikas are born blind and nearly hairless but grow quickly, reaching adult size in forty to fifty days.
Pikas have a keen sense of sight and hearing, which helps them detect predators, such as weasels, hawks, eagles, and owls. When a pika feels threatened, it issues a loud, shrill, alarm bark and nearby pikas immediately hide in their burrows or in rock crevices. The one exception is when a weasel is detected, the pika remains silent, since the small weasel can follow pikas into their hiding places. Pikas live an average of one to two years and more rarely, four to six years in the wild.
PIKAS AND PEOPLE
Pikas have little economic importance to humans. They are too small to be used as food, although they are sometimes hunted for their fur, particularly in China. Pikas are sometimes considered agricultural pests and killed by farmers.
Four species of pika are listed by the World Conservation Union (IUCN) as Critically Endangered, facing an extremely high risk of extinction, dying out, in the wild; four species are listed as Endangered, facing a very high risk of extinction; and ten species are listed as Vulnerable, facing a high risk of extinction. One species, the Sardinian pika is considered Extinct.