While we’re snug in our home in Grand Teton National Park, bundled under blankets and cozying up to the fire, the valley’s abundant wildlife is using other strategies for surviving the Jackson Hole winter. Some pack up and leave for warmer climes, some grow nice long fur coats and seek shelter from the wind, some puff out their feathers to trap heat, and some hibernate.
One of my favorite animals is a little guy found in the mountains surrounding the Snake River and throughout the Yellowstone region. I’ve heard his high-pitched chirp in the talus slopes on the west side of Jenny Lake – and seen him scurrying around the granite boulders at Inspiration Point. This little animal is the pika, and his winter survival strategy is to hunker down under the snow and wait.
Pikas may not be Jackson Hole’s most charismatic residents, but they are insanely cute. Just five inches long, and closely related to rabbits, pikas have short legs, rounded ears, and stubby tails. They are native to the colder mountainous regions of the Northern hemisphere, and live on mountain slopes where opportunities to find shelter abound. Pikas are herbivores, and eat a variety of vegetation found in their Alpine habitats.
When you are visiting Jackson Hole and looking for pikas, start by listening for their shrill “eep,” then search the ground around you for the tiny “haystacks” of food that they stash among the rocks. Pikas don’t hibernate, but rely on these carefully collected food caches hidden under the snow to feast on during the long Teton winters. Pikas depend on deep snow cover during the winter for warmth and rely on cooler alpine temperatures to avoid overheating during the summer – making them extremely vulnerable to changing climate conditions. Visit Craighead Institute to learn more about these amazing creatures, contribute to ongoing research, or to adopt a pika of your very own!