As cute as a Pika
Updated: Mar 11, 2020
Do you know what a pika is? And have you ever heard about the Sardinian Pika?
If you think a pika is a yellow creature, with a bushy tail, long black-tipped ears and red circles on the cheeks, well... you're not there at all! Missed! A pika is not a pokémon, but an animal that actually exists in real life... and it's definitely much cuter than a pokémon!
Let me introduce you to pikas. Pikas are a group of about 20 species. They are found on the American continent (in the Rocky Mountains), and in Eurasia. Cousins of rabbits and other hares, pikas are restricted to mountain ecosystems. For example, Ili pika (Ochotona iliensis), which lives in the Tianshan Mountains of northwestern China, was only discovered in 1983 and only a handful of individuals of this species have been seen since then (National Geographic).
All pika species live only at high elevations and eat mountain plants (grasses, herbs and flowers). They spend most of their summer filling their pantry with many plants to survive the winter. Their burrows are buried under snow for most of the year and yet this is a species that does not hibernate!
Like all species living in mountain environments, pikas are threatened by environmental changes, to which they are very sensitive, for example grazing pressure from livestock and air pollution. If you've never heard of Sardinian Pika (Prolagus sardus), it comes with no surprise: the species is now unfortunately extinct. Erased from the face of the Earth, nonetheless!
Currently, we hear a lot about the biodiversity crisis, threatened species, collapsing populations. One might therefore believe that this is a recent phenomenon in the history of humanity. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Numerous studies show that humans have contributed to the disappearance of animal and plant species since... well, more or less since the advent of Homo sapiens about 250 000 years ago.
The Sardinian pika was once found in Corsica, Sardinia and the small Mediterranean islands around. There is overwhelming evidence that pikas were hunted and eaten by the first human communities that settled on these islands in Neolithic times. Pikas have also certainly suffered from the introduction of predators by man (rats, dogs, cats) and even diseases (introduced with rabbits). If the date, or even the time, of the disappearance of the Sardinian pika is subject to controversy, there is no doubt today that anthropic pressures have taken over this species.
If only that could serve as a lesson!
I had the chance to see some wild pikas in BC, Canada. It has been very exciting for an ethologist like me to observe these cute animals sun-bathing, munching herbs, and speeding around the rocks around their burrows. Find below a selection of shots.