Living Organisms / Animalia / Craniata / Mammalia / Lagomorpha / Ochotonidae / Genus:
Ochotona -

Species referenced within Wildpro

Genus Synonyms
  • Abra
  • Abrama
  • Argyrotona
  • Buchneria
  • Conothoa
  • Lagomys
  • Lagotona
  • Ogotoma
  • Tibetholagus
  • Tibetolagus

(B607.w20)

Alternative names for pikas:

  • Conies
  • Mouse hares 

(B147)

Genus Author Nikki Fox BVSc MRCVS (V.w103)

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General Information

General Information

General pika (Ochotona spp.) information

  • Pikas are small oviform, rodent-like lagomorphs which weigh under 500 grams. (B285.w5g)
  • They have rounded, relatively large ears, short legs, and a very short tail which is hardly visible. (B285.w5g)
  • The name Pika originated from the Tungus of Siberia who attempted to mimic the call "peeka" of the local pika species. (B285.w5g)
  • The generic name of Ochotona is derived from the Mongolian name for pikas "ogdoi". (B285.w5g)
  • "Pishchukha" is the Russian common name for all species of pika and some gerbils (Rhombomys opimus, Meriones tamareiscinus (Muridae - (Family)). (B605.3.w3)
Distribution
  • These small mammals may be found in Eurasia and western North America. (B147)
    • "Across much of Asia north of the Himalayas from the Middle East and the Ural Mountains east to the North Pacific Rim." (B285.w5g)
  • Out of the total of 30 Ochotona species, only two are found in North America (Ochotona collaris - Collared pika and Ochotona princeps - American pika). (B285.w5a)
  • Asia is unique among the continents for having more species of pikas than of hares and rabbits. (B605.3.w3)
  • Pikas are found at various altitudes ranging from sea level to 6130 metres. (B285.w5g)
    • The altitude distribution of pikas in North America is from 90 metres to 4100 metres which is above the tree line. (B147)
    • In Asia, pikas may be found at sea level in the northern tundra but in the southern mountainous areas they inhabit a range from 2500 metres to over 6000 metres. (B147)
Habitat
  • Most pikas live in remote high mountains and wild country and are well adapted to the cold. (B285.w5g, B605.3.w3)
  • Pikas have become well adapted to living in rocky steppe and alpine habitats. (B285.w5g, B605.3.w3)
  • Some species inhabit moist forest areas, living under stumps of trees or fallen logs. (B147)
  • In general, it is possible to categorise pikas depending on their habitat preference:
    • 1) Burrowing pikas dig burrows in open alpine meadow, semi desert or steppe environments. (B285.w5g)
      • Also known as burrowing steppe-, forest- and shrub-dwelling pikas. (B605.3.w3)
    • 2) Rock-dwelling pikas nest among rocks or fallen logs. (B285.w5g)
      • Also known as non-burrowing and talus-dwelling pikas. (B605.3.w3)
    • The two types of pikas (burrowers and rock-dwellers) tend to have quite different life histories e.g. in social, mating and reproductive behaviour: "Almost every facet of the biology of pikas is sharply divided between rock-dwelling and burrowing forms". (B285.w5g)
  • Certain pikas (Ochotona pallasi - Pallas's pika and Ochotona rufescens - Afghan pika) are intermediate in their habitat use, in that they burrow but also sometimes live among rocks. (B285.w5g)
    • The life history of these pikas is reported to be closer to that of the burrowing pikas than to the rock-dwelling pikas. (B285.w5g)
Rock-dwelling pika species Burrowing pika species Intermediate pika species

Unknown

Appearance / Anatomy
  • Length: adult pikas are reported to measure 120-300 mm with most species averaging around 200 mm or less. The sexes are of similar size and thus difficult to distinguish. (B147, B285.w5g)
  • Weight:
    • Adults can weigh between 125 and 400 g (B147) between 50 and 400 grams (B285.w5g) depending on species. (B147, B285.w5g)
  • Head: 
    • The head of pikas is blunt and short. (B147)
    • The skull of pikas has the following features:
      • quite flattened rather than arched (B147)
      • a constriction between the orbits (B147)
      • no supraorbital bones (B605.2.w2)
      • a relatively short nasal region (B605.2.w2)
  • Nostrils: Pikas can completely close their nostrils. (B147)
  • Ears: small, rounded ears that are between 12-36 mm in length (B285.w5g). They are roughly as high as they are wide. (B147, B605.2.w2)
  • Eyes:
    • The eyes of pikas are positioned to give a broad field of vision (B285.w5a)
    • Neonates are blind; the eyes open at eight to ten days. (B287)
  • Vibrissae (whiskers): These are shorter in burrowing pikas compared to rock dwelling pikas. (B605.3.w3)
  • Teeth: 
    • There are 26 teeth in total - two less than other lagomorphs who have one more upper molar on each side. (B285.w5a, B605.1.w1)
    • The dental formula is 2/1 incisors, 0/0 canines, 3/2 premolars, and 2/3 molars. (B147, B605.1.w1)
    • Lagomorphs, including pikas, differ from rodents by having two pairs of upper incisors rather than just the one pair. The additional set of incisors are called peg teeth and are found directly behind the long, constantly growing pair, in the upper jaw. (B147, B285.w5a, B605.1.w1)
    • At birth, lagomorphs actually have three pairs of upper incisors, but they quickly lose the outer incisor on each side. (B147)
    • The first upper incisors have a cutting edge which is V-shaped; the peg teeth lack a cutting edge. (B147)
    • The incisors are covered completely by enamel. (B147)
    • The upper incisors' roots are found in the skull's pre-maxillary bones. However, the length of the lower incisors' roots varies. (B147)
      • [Note: lagomorphs have teeth which grow throughout their lives. For this reason the portion of the teeth which is not exposed (not above the gum line) is strictly speaking not a "root"; however, it is sometimes convenient to describe it as a root.]
    • Pikas have high crowned cheek teeth with no roots. (B147)
    • The lower tooth rows are closer together than the upper tooth rows. (B147)
  • Tail: the tail is virtually absent at a length of 5 mm (B285.w5g); it is not visible. (B147, B430.w2)
  • Limbs and feet:
    • Pikas have short legs. (B285.w5g)
    • The hindlimbs are just slightly longer than the forelimbs. (B147, B430.w2, B605.2.w2)
    • They have five digits on each foot. (B147)
    • The feet are heavily furred on the underside. (B147)
    • In burrowing pikas, the claws are more straight and powerful than those of the rock dwelling pikas. (B605.3.w3)
  • Fur and colour: 
    • Fine, long, soft and dense coat with fur that covers the feet including the under surface. (B147, B285.w5g)
    • Two moults per year occur in most species - the brighter summer coat is a yellowish red; the winter coat is greyer. (B147)
    • Most pikas are a greyish-brown, usually lighter below than above. There is one species which is reddish. (B285.w5g)
    • Melanistic forms may occur in rock dwelling pikas, especially those that are found on isolated talus patches. Partial melanism also occurs among pikas. This variability in colour has led to systematic confusion of many forms of pikas. (B605.3.w3)
    • Newborn pikas are helpless and naked (B147, B287) or slightly furred. (B287)
  • Mammary glands:
    • Females have four or six mammary glands. (B147)
  • Female reproductive tract:
    • "The uterus is duplex. The placenta is discoid, deciduate and hemochorial,with a mesometrial, superficial implantation. (B287)"
    • It is thought that the female eats the placentas after parturition. (B287)
  • Male reproductive tract:
    • Testes:
      • The testes are intra-abdominal outside the breeding season. (B147, B287)
      • During the breeding season they are found in folds of skin at the base of the penis. (B147)
    • Penis:
  • Scent glands: Pikas have scent glands, as do all lagomorphs. (B285.w5a)
Reproduction
  • Talus-dwelling pikas and burrowing pikas show different life strategies, with burrowing pikas becoming sexually mature (in the summer of their birth in some species), producing large litters, perhaps several litters per year and having a short life span. In contrast, talus-dwelling pikas show a longer average lifespan, mature later and produce fewer, smaller litters. (B147, B285.w5a, B605.3.w3)
  • Breeding season:
  • Gestation period:
    • Pikas have a short gestation period. (B285.w5a)
      • Rock dwellers have a gestation period of 30 days. (B147)
      • Burrowers have a gestation period of approximately 3 weeks. (B147)
    • Embryo resorption may occur if the pika encounters adverse conditions. (B285.w5a)
  • Litter size: In general, burrowing pikas have litters which are twice as large as those of rock dwelling pikas. (B285.w5g, B605.3.w3)
    • Burrowing pikas have one to 13 young per litter. (B285.w5g)
    • Rock-dwelling pikas may have one to five young per litter. (B285.w5g)

  • Litters per year:
    • Rock-dwelling pikas have few litters per year. They may have two litters annually but often only one is successfully weaned (B285.w5g, B605.3.w3)
    • Burrowing pikas tend to have more litters per year than talus pikas; some species are know to have up to five litters a year. (B285.w5g)
  • Sexual maturity:
    • Three months (B285.w5a)
    • Burrowing pikas may mature and breed in their summer of birth. However, young rock dwelling pikas will first breed as yearlings. (B605.3.w3)
Life span:
  • There is a high mortality for these lagomorphs as they are prey for many mammals and birds. (B285.w5a)
  • Burrowing pikas may live up to three years of age, but usually only live for one year (B285.w5g); few animals live more than two years and in spring yearling make up a high percentage of the population. (B605.3.w3)
  • Rock-dwelling pikas may live up to seven years of age. (B285.w5g) Their average mortality is low compared to the burrowing pikas. (B605.3.w3)

Detailed physiology

  • Metabolism: 
    • Pikas have a high body temperature. (B285.w5g)
  • Gastrointestinal system (faeces and gut motility): 

    • Pikas produce two types of faeces, hard faeces like pepper seeds - small green spherical pellets - which are passed during the day; and soft faeces, sticky and dark green/black, passed at night. Faeces of the latter type have high a energy value and B vitamin levels, and are re-ingested. This behaviour, known as coprophagy, may have a similar function to the ruminant behaviour of chewing the cud. (B147, B285.w5a)
  • Vocalisations:
    • Pikas are known to be more vocal than other lagomorphs. (B285.w5a)
    • Rock dwellers tend to have only two vocalisations: 
      • a short call which usually contains one or two note squeaks, used for announcing their presence or warning others of predators (B285.w5g)
      • a long call used by males during the breeding season which is "a series of squeaks lasting up to 30 seconds". (B285.w5g)
      • Some rock dwellers rarely vocalise even weak calls (e.g. Ochotona macrotis - Large-eared pika and Ochotona roylei - Royle's pika). (B285.w5g)
    • Burrowing pikas have a vast range of calls: 

      • Rapidly repeated soft short predator alarm call; (B285.w5g)

      • Long calls used by adult males; (B285.w5g)

      • Whines and trills; (B285.w5g)

      • Muffle and transition calls used by young pikas, which are thought to promote cohesion among siblings. (B285.w5g)

Diet:
  • Pikas are herbivores and eat grasses, flowering stalks, and leaves. (B285.w5g)
  • Pikas eat "grasses, sedges, weeds, and many of the large flowering and woody plants," (B147)
  • Pikas have a preference for those plants highest in protein or other chemicals important to them. (B285.w5g)

Feeding behaviour

  • Pikas are unable to grasp plants with their forepaws and so they eat leaves, stalks and grasses using a side to side motion of their jaws. (B285.w5g)
  • Summer and autumn are times when most pikas devote a lot of effort to "haying"- harvesting mouthfuls of vegetation which are carried back to the den for storage. (B147, B285.w5g, B605.3.w3)
  • Pikas will sometimes place their collected material in exposed locations for curing by the sun. (B147)
  • Pikas have been occasionally reported to climb up a tree a few metres and then out on a limb to cut twigs for haying. (B147)
  • They build up these stores that resemble piles of hay and use them for winter consumption often over-harvesting so that it is a rare occurrence to run out. (B285.w5g, B605.3.w3)
  • Even at a fairly low population density of ten to twelve pikas per hectare, vegetation storage by pikas may be up to 30 kg per hectare. (B605.3.w3)
  • Tunnels are also made in the snow during winter to harvest any nearby vegetation. (B285.w5g)
  • Some species continue to forage throughout winter rather than haying, because snows are uncommon. (B285.w5g)
  • Coprophagy occurs in pikas.
    • Pikas produce two types of faeces: 
      • one is like a pepper seed - a small green spherical pellet - which is passed during the day;
      • and the other is soft, sticky and dark green/black passed at night.
    • It is this latter type of faeces which is re-ingested due to its high energy value and B vitamin levels. (B147, B285.w5a)
    • It is thought that coprophagy may fulfil a similar function to the ruminant behaviour of chewing the cud. (B147)

Social behaviour / territoriality / population densities

  • Pikas are highly territorial lagomorphs; both sexes use scent marking and vocalisations to maintain territories. (B605.1.w1)

  • The rock dwelling pikas or talus dwelling pikas

    • These pikas are often relatively asocial. (B605.3.w3)

    • It is rare that they interact and usually it is to repel an intruder if they do so. (B285.w5g)

    • Even in a pair of pikas which are contributing to a shared hay pile, they spend a large part of the day apart. (B285.w5g)

    • The rock dwelling pikas have large territories defended by the individual (in North American species) or defended in pairs (Asian species). (B285.w5g, B605.3.w3)

    • The population density is therefore low, at 5-25 per acre, and reasonably stable over a period of time. (B285.w5g, B605.3.w3)

      • Population densities of pikas in rocky areas do not usually reach more than 20 per hectare. (B147)

  • The burrowing pikas or steppe dwelling pikas

    • These pikas are very friendly, sociable mammals that live within family groups where they may play-box, sit in contact, nose rub and spend time socially grooming. (B285.w5g)

    • Communal dens house family groups which includes siblings of different ages. (B285.w5g)

    • The young may follow behind an adult, usually their father, in a line. (B285.w5g)

    • However, there may be aggression between members of different family groups, in particular, long chases of adult males occur. (B285.w5g)

    • Population densities of burrowing steppe dwellers are often much higher than that of the rock dwellers but they are also prone to fluctuate more widely. (B147)

    • The population density may be greater than 750 per acre towards the end of the breeding season but this may fluctuate greatly both annually and seasonally. (B285.w5g, B605.3.w3)

    • The maximum density of some steppe pikas is reported to exceed 300 per hectare. (B147)

Mating behaviour

  • In general, it appears that pikas are monogamous. (B285.w5g, B605.3.w3)
  • However in some burrowing pikas, the mating system may be flexible: 

    • Monogamous, polygynous, complex (several male and female), and polyandrous adult associations have been observed side by side. 

    • Polyandrous associations are rare in mammals, but in pikas, two males from the same burrow may be seen alternately mating with the resident female and then sitting side by side or grooming one another, even while the female is in estrus - apparently an adaptation to maximize reproductive rates in face of harsh environmental conditions. (B285.w5g)

Hibernation

Activity

  • Pikas are mainly active by day apart from Ochotona pusilla - Steppe pika which is mainly nocturnal. (B285.w5g)
  • They are well-adapted to the cold and can perish in even moderately warm conditions; therefore they tend to be active only during the cooler parts of the day. (B285.w5g)
  • Pikas may be active at all hours, in particular, early morning and evenings. It seems that they are less active on sunny days compared with cloudy days. (B147)
  • In the Himalayas it has been noted that pikas which live at high altitudes may be active all day, whereas pikas at warmer, lower, altitudes emerge only at dawn and dusk. (B285.w5g)
  • Pikas are agile and lively. (B285.w5g)
Importance of pikas
  • Pikas are important as prey for many birds and mammals. (B605.3.w3)
    • On the Siberian steppe, most rodents hibernate during winter, leaving the non-hibernating lagomorphs as important available prey for the middle-sized felid, canid, or mustelid carnivores. (B605.3.w3)
  • By recycling soil, burrowing pikas make a positive contribution to ecosystem-level dynamics. (B605.3.w3)
  • Some burrowing pikas have high population densities which may lead to rangeland degradation. (B285.w5g) 
    • However, erosion is more likely to be due to vegetation overgrazing by livestock rather than burrowing pikas. B605.3.w3)
  • Haypiles created by pikas may provide winter food for domestic cows and horses and also native species including ungulates and smaller herbivores. (B605.3.w3)
  • Pikas have been used for their fur. Before World War II, the fur was used to produce high quality felt in the Soviet Union. (B605.3.w3)
Threats
  • The status of many species of pika is hard to assess because they inhabit such remote areas. (B285.w5g)
  • Due to their remote habitat, most pikas "rarely come into conflict with human economic activity." (B147)
  • However, many species of pika inhabit very restricted ranges and so may be threatened by human environmental disruption. (B147)
  • Ochotona species and subspecies that are at risk as per the red data list (IUCN):

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References

Primary Reference at the level of this taxa

B607 Wilson, D.E. & Reeder, D.M.
Mammal Species of the world - A Taxonomic and Geographic Reference (Third Edition)

Other References

B605 Chapman, J.A. & Flux, J.E.C.
Rabbits, Hares and Pikas. Status Survey and Conservation Action Plan 1990

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