Cross a bunny, a hamster, and a stuffed teddy bear, and you get the Ili pika.
Native to the Tianshan Mountains of northwestern China, the Ili pika was discovered in 1983, and few have shown their squeal-worthy faces since. Now, new camera trap footage gives a rare glimpse into the life of this enigmatic critter.
Growing up to around eight inches, Ili pikas make their homes in the nooks and crannies of their rugged habitat, making it tough for pika-seekers to find them. Add to that their asocial tendencies and camouflaged fur, and it’s no surprise sightings have been scarce.
Then, in 2014 Weidong Li, the scientist at the Xinjiang Institute for Ecology and Geography who had discovered the Ili pika, got lucky while scouring the rocky landscape: One of the mammals ran right across his boot, according to Andrew Smith, a conservation biologist at Arizona State University. The creature scampered up the rock face and then struck a pose while Li snapped its picture—the first sighting of a live Ili pika in nearly 20 years.
That same year, Li and a team of volunteers began positioning motion-activated cameras to capture the activity in areas where they suspect the critters—deemed endangered since 2008—likely lurk.
"It's like having extra eyes because the cameras are working fulltime," says Smith, who has co-authored several studies about the Ili pika with Li.
And it paid off with the recent video, which was largely captured in September 2017. The pika can be seen hopping about, exploring crevices in the rocks. "It uses feces and urine to mark its territory," Li explains. In the video, the creature peers about in search of marks from other pikas on nearby stones.
The footage also shows another interesting activity, Li adds: "There is a precious video of the Ili pika eating its own soft feces."
Such video may help researchers better understand Ili pika behavior, and thus more effectively protect the little furballs. (Also see "Newly Discovered Carnivore Looks Like Teddy Bear.")
"The thing is, if you see one animal in 20 years, you're not going to be able to accurately portray what's going on," says Smith.
Pushed to Extinction
Conserving pikas is an urgent task, as they face many threats—predators, encroaching human activities, and climate change, to name a few.
Early sightings of Ili pikas were restricted to zones below 11,000 feet. But increased temperatures in northwestern China seem to be pushing pikas higher into the cliffs, up to 13,000 feet. (Read how North American pikas are also suffering from climate change.)
The creatures can only shift upward so far, as many of the high plateaus are now occupied by livestock farmers.
One new and increasing potential danger are the farmers’ mastiff dogs, Smith explains. They're kept on chains during the day but let free at night to keep wolves at bay.
During this nightly prowl, they could be hunting down pika snacks: "They're not given dog food from Costco," Smith notes. But he cautions there isn’t any direct evidence of the predation to date.
Two protected areas in the Tianshan Mountains have already been established to protect the tiny critters, according to Li. But his work is far from complete. Li, Smith, and other conservationists will continue to educate locals and protect Ili pika habitat.