Pika!

We did see some animals on the tundra as well as plants – birds included American Pipits and Mountain Bluebirds (no ptarmigans or grouse, sadly) and the two mammal species we saw were marmots and pikas. Marmots are basically mountain-dwelling woodchucks, but pikas are something else entirely.

Without the long ears it’s hard to tell, but this critter is not a rodent – it’s a lagomorph, a close cousin of rabbits and hares. There are many species of pika, most of which are found in Eurasia; the one native to the Rocky Mountains is the American Pika, Ochotona princeps. Because of its dependence on cool tundra habitat, and because of the fact that in the western U.S. such habitat is only found in isolated high-elevation islands, it may be far more vulnerable than most mammals to global warming and is in fact already declining. In 2010 it was considered but rejected for listing under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

Pikas live in rock piles surrounded by vegetation. They don’t hibernate during the winter, so they need some means of storing food, but what’s amazing to me is that they not only store food, they actually have a means of preserving it: they make their own hay! They collect plants and pile them on the rocks in the sun until they dry, then store the hay in their burrows for use as winter food and bedding. The more I learn about animals’ different adaptations for cultivating, collecting, and storing food, the more I wonder if human agriculture, the basis of civilization, is really all that unique!

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