For the most part, the collared pika is a vegetarian. But winters are cold in Alaska, and when the opportunity presents itself, this adorable animal finds a food source that is decidedly not vegetarian.

The collared pika looks like a rat or groundhog, but it's most closely related to rabbits. Like a rabbit, it snacks, through the long Alaskan summer, on the plants outside its den. Between meals it takes advantage of the warm ground to dig itself a living area and a food storage area. Unlike most other mammals, it makes sure that these two areas are entirely separate. To people unfamiliar with the pika's secret habit, this separation of house and cellar looks counterproductive. In the winter, the pika will have to leave its den to get food, exposing itself both to the cold and to potential predators.

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A closer study of the pika reveals that it has good reasons for keeping its food far away from its hiding place, because what's in this animal's cellar is not vegetarian fare. Winter isn't an easy season, and it isn't unusual for birds in the pika's area to freeze to death and drop to the ground. When they do, the pika scurries out and grabs them, dragging them back to its cellar, where it buries them in the ground. In the dead of winter, when it gets very cold, out the pika goes to the cellar. It exhumes the bird corpses, uses its teeth to pierce their delicate skulls, and eats their brains. When finished it scampers away from the birds — their bodies a magnet for winter predators — and back to its safe and remote den to await spring and the resumption of its vegetarian lifestyle.

[Source: National Geographic]

Image: NPS Photo/Jacob W. Frank – Denali National Park and Preserve.