5 surprising facts about the American pika

September 18, 2015, 2:48 p.m.

1. The pika doesn't look it, but it is related to rabbits. It's part of the order Lagomorpha, which is the same as rabbits and hares. If this takes you by surprise, you aren't the only one. The shorter ears, tiny size and dense coat make it look more like a fuzzy ball than a bunny. Another feature that sets them apart is the tail. The pika has one of the longest tails of all lagomorphs, but it's hidden in the thick fur so it looks like it doesn't have a tail at all.

2. Pikas live in colonies, yet they defend their own little territory. According to National Wildlife Federation, "Although pikas live in colonies, they are very territorial over their den and surrounding area. They will give off territorial calls to define the boundaries between each pika neighbor. They make their dens among rocks." And though they live near each other, males and females lead solitary lives except during breeding seasons. Pikas mate once in the spring and once in the summer.

3. The relationship to rabbits and hares comes out in its nickname. The pika is known for sending up a shrill whistle and diving into a hiding place when it spots a predator such as a hawk or eagle. It's constant, chirping warning call has earned it the nickname of "whistling hare." It is also sometimes called the "rock rabbit."

4. The pika spends a great deal of time gathering flowers and grasses for winter. According to 9News, "Pika do not hibernate, instead they spend the warm months gathering vegetation to sustain them through Colorado's harsh winters. As the vegetation is collected, it is spread on the rocks to cure in the sun, then stacked into hay piles and stored under the rocks. One study discovered their 'haystacks' of gathered goodies can weigh up to 61 pounds! These stashes may easily cover an area of 100 square meters and can reach up to two feet high. The volume of a hay pile is perhaps that of a bathtub, and easily 30 species of plants may be found in it. Biologists have learned that during just a 10-week time period, one pika will make 14,000 foraging trips, as many as 25 per hour, to secure its food stash."

Here's a video of a pika gathering material for its den, and keeping a very careful watch out for predators in the process:

5.The pika is at serious risk from climate change. As the planet warms, many species shift their habitat toward the poles or higher up mountains to escape the heat. However, the pika is already an alpine-dwelling creature. There is no up or away for them to escape to. As the climate shifts and plant species change or die out as a result, the pika will be in serious trouble.

Also on MNN: 5 weird facts about camels

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