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Weird & Wonderful Creatures: The Pika

Image credit: David Kingham, via Flickr, under the CC BY-NC-ND license.

Pikas (order Lagomorpha) are a group of small furry mammals found in cold, mountainous areas in Eastern Europe, Asia, and North America. While there are more than 30 different species of pika, they share some similar characteristics: all have round ears, short limbs, and no tail.

Most pikas are between 5 and 9 inches long and 4 to 12 ounces in weight, depending on the species. As they are closely related to rabbits and hares, pikas are herbivorous: their diet consists of a variety of plants including moss, lichen, and grasses. Similar to rabbits, pikas excrete soft green feces, which they eat and digest again to absorb further nutrients. This produces the final brown feces.

Pikas in Europe and Asia are found primarily in family groups, where they split tasks. In North America, however, they are solitary except during the mating season.

Most species of pika in the wild are faring well, but a few, like Hoffmann's pika, the Helan Shan pika, and the Ili pika, are considered endangered or critically endangered according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. Because pikas live so high in the mountains, they very easily could be affected by climate change: as temperatures rise, there will be nowhere cold enough for the pikas to migrate.

One species of pika was in the news recently when it was captured on film for the first time in 20 years. The Ili pika, endemic to the northwestern region of China, had only been observed by scientists a handul of times since it was discovered in the 1980s. This furry creature with a teddy bear face became an Internet sensation when photographic evidence was taken in summer 2014.

While pikas resemble rodents, like mice and rats, they are in a different order of mammals. Learn more about classification with the Classify It! app. The Tree of Life also will give you lots of information about cladistics, the classification system that scientists use to show the relationships between species.

Another animal, like the pika, who consumes feces is the dung beetle. Learn about how it uses the Milky Way as a compass.

One of the ways some species of pikas are threatened is that they live in cold, mountainous climates that are warming due to climate change. In Ascending Plants, you can hear about other organisms that are changing altitude to find a cooler place to live. In Mountain Rain, you can hear about another threat to mountainous dwellers.

Educators, you may find the Introducing Biodiversity lesson a good place to begin sharing the amazing variety of life with your students.


This post originally appeared on Science NetLinks.