All About Denali Park | From The Denali Summer Times
1. Collared Pika Also known as a "rock rabbit" because you’ll usually find it on top of a rock or boulder. This little member of the hare family has mouselike ears, and works searching for vegetation. They collect leaves, stems and twigs and store them in food caches – called "haystacks." By late August, the stack may be a couple of feet wide and a couple of feet tall, under an overhanging rock, partially exposed to the sun, so the hay can dry. Pikas have to protect haystack from their neighbors who try to raid them. Pikas don't hibernate. Photo, Mitch Malamud
3. Arctic Ground Squirrel Found in Alaska and northern Canada, this little herbivore hibernates during the winter. It eats berries and seeds, doubling its weight in the summer. In the winter, it burrows with its colony, and its body temperature drops to almost 6 degrees below freezing without harm. Photo, Mitch Malamud
5. Snowshoe Hare & Lynx Bigger than cottontails, snowshoe hares are known locally as "rabbits." But they are different. They’re born fully furred. They don't dig burrows, but rest under branches and bushes. Snowshoes are active at dawn and dusk. You'll see them along the roadside in the evening. They have furry paws – "snowshoes" – and they turn white in the winter. Hares have an 8 to 11 year boom and bust cycle. When there are a lot of them, there really are a lot – hundreds and hundreds (up to 600 in a square mile.) This leads to a jump in fox and lynx numbers. Then, all of a sudden, there are very few snowshoe hares and the lynx and fox disappear with them.
4. Beaver Beavers play a huge role in the natural ecosystem, controlling water flow and creating ponds. They appear to be migrating further north as a result of climate warming. Beavers build dams across a stream. Water backs up behind the dam making a pond. The pond not only becomes a home for fish but also for ducks, swans and geese. Of course, beavers also stay in their pond. They live in lodges. Lodges are made from branches and mud, just like their dams. The lodge is either in the middle of the pond or on the shore of a lake. Sometimes you see beaver lodges along the banks of a river. Take the trail to Horseshoe Lake, near the park entrance, and see if you can spot some beavers in the evening. Photos, Mitch Malamud
Not Just Cute We all tend to overlook the smaller animals. They’re incredibly important in the ecosystem. Not all small animals are prey - some are predators. Foxes, coyotes and weasels are all small predators. Arctic ground squirrels, pikas and snowshoe hares are important prey. Each fills a niche and helps keep things in balance. Others, like the beaver, actually change the landscape by making and maintaining ponds. Even the smallest animals and insects have the important functions of cleaning up, storing seeds and pollinating. There are many important small animals. Here are a few you can look for on your adventures in Denali.
2. Ermine (Weasel) Weasels are found over North America and in most of Alaska. They prefer to eat mice, but will eat other small animals, like shrews and pikas. They hunt in the day as well as at night. Weasels (known as "ermines" in the winter, when they turn white) keep rodent populations in check. Their own population is dependent on how many mice are around. Photo, Mitch Malamud
Further Reading: There are many great books on Alaskan wildlife. Some are books of photographs. Others contain detailed information. For a general overview of more common animals, we often turn to the excellent descriptions provided by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in its "Wildlife Notebook Series" at this wildlife notebook link. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game has a great new website with many other resources including information on viewing, education and species as well as hunting and fishing information at this Alaska Fish and Game link.