A little-known mammal found only on the mountain tops of Alaska, Yukon and the Northwest Territories has been added to Canada's species at risk list as a species of special concern.

The collared pika (pronounced peeka), a small relative of the rabbit, is a survivor from the ice age. It now lives only on nunataks — rocky areas surrounded by glacial ice. It's at risk due to habitat loss caused by climate change.

Nunatak in St Elias Mountains

A nunatak in the St. Elias Mountains in Yukon, where David Hik studies pikas. (submitted by David Hik)

David Hik of the University of Alberta has studied pikas in Yukon's Kluane National Park, and says they survive at high altitudes by making thousands of foraging runs at the end of the short growing season to collect food for the winter.

"They live in big piles of boulders and they run out into the adjacent meadows and they collect vegetation at the end of the summer. That's a very characteristic behaviour of these guys."

A pika can make up to 11,000 trips to collect "big mouthfuls" of vegetation to stash away under their boulders for the winter. They're territorial and though they may mate with their neighbours, they don't share territories or food resources.

"What they do, though, is they'll run next door and try and steal food sometimes," Hik said.

Migrating birds that get stranded accidentally on mountaintops and die also provide an alternative food source.

"They perish on these mountain tops and these little pikas will run out and gather them up."

pika among boulders

Spot the pika: the tiny animals blend in among the boulders on a nunatak. (submitted by David Hik)

Given their extreme habitat, pikas are sensitive to climate change, he said. They don't hibernate and over the last 15 years warmer winter temperatures has meant less snow, which pikas use for thermal insulation for the pikas' nests. With less snow, they're exposed to more extreme temperatures, causing high mortality rates in some years.

Grassy meadows are also giving way to more woody vegetation, such as dwarf willows and birches.

Hik said the species of special concern designation will raise awareness of the changes to the pika's mountaintop habitat. It may also may foster better efforts to monitor pika populations and other species that live at high elevations.

"We have a pretty good understanding of only one or two populations," said Hik.

"They're found throughout much of Yukon and Northwest Territories so it would be very useful to study them in a few other places, especially in the eastern and northern parts of the range in the Mackenzie Mountains. They may respond differently to some of the variability in climate and climate change that is occurring right now."

Pika with sedges

A pika collects a mouthful of vegetation to stash away for the winter in its home under a pile of boulders. (submitted by David Hik)

with files from Randy Henderson