The world is full of interesting, little-known critters whose behaviors seem driven by more than dumb instinct. The pika is one such mammal. Sporting the appearance of small, stubby-legged guinea pigs yet more closely related to their rabbit cousins, these animals actually manufacture hay.
No, pikas don’t practice human-style agriculture, but because they don’t hibernate, they’re forced to deal with sparse winters in other ingenious ways. The pika’s solution is to spend significant amounts of time foraging during summer, but instead of just eating all of the greenery it finds, it stores it in large piles. As the sun strikes the cut flowers and grasses that the pika has chomped down, they dry out so that the animal can enjoy them during the colder months.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about this behavior is that it seems so well thought-out. Various studies indicate that pikas are incredibly selective about which plants they choose to mow down and add to their piles. For instance, when making hay, some will gather blossoms and leaves, but when grazing, they switch to grasses, which may have to do with the fact that these plants grow back faster.
Researchers who examined the types of plant species that pikas collected also noticed that they favored nutrient-dense varieties. Some may pick plants that fight bacteria to keep their valuable hay piles from spoiling. One 1997 field assessment found that certain pikas even played it safe by storing far more food than they’d need for a single winter.
Pikas are known for their skittish natures and shrill alarm cries. If you happen to encounter random hay piles on your next camping trip, withdraw a reasonable distance. Then sit down and wait very quietly to see if you can catch sight of one of these little foraging experts before they notice you looking and dive back into their burrows.