By Tina Mitchell
As we hiked above treeline, the path took a right turn and our ears filled with high-pitched, squeezed-dog-toy squeaks. The dogs snapped to attention, so we made sure we had them on short leashes. We had entered the realm of American Pikas.
Small mammals related to rabbits and other lagomorphs (even though they look more like big hamsters), American Pikas (pronounced “PIE-kah”; Ochotona princeps) are cuddly-looking, pocket-sized mammals with oval bodies only about six inches long, moderately large rounded ears, and no visible tail. Their sharp, curved claws and padded toes help them easily scamper around alpine rocks. Their voices clearly announce their presence; but camouflaged against the boulders, these spritely creatures prove more difficult to see.
At least 30 species of pikas live throughout the world. Most inhabit mountainous areas of Asia, but two live in North America – the Collared Pika (O. collaris), in Alaska and Canada, and the American Pika, found throughout the high western mountains of North America. The genus name Ochotona stems from ochodona, the Mongolian word for pikas. The species name princeps, from the Latin word for “chief,” refers to a tribal name for the pika: “little chief hare.” Pika is the word used for these animals by the Tunguses tribe of northeast Siberia.