If ever there was a face that read, “Goddamn it, they found me,” this is it. That small, downturned mouth, ever-so-slightly ajar in a moment of panicked contemplation, it really just says it all. Meet the Ili pika (Ochotona iliensis), an endangered species that until last year, had not been seen in 20 years.
Discovered in 1983 and formally described three years later, the species had to wait another 10 years to be properly studied in its cliff-face homeland atop China's Tian Shan Mountains in the northwest province of Xinjiang. In its 32 years on the record, just 29 individuals have been spotted, and it’s thought that the 2,000 or so adults estimated to exist back in the early 1990s has dwindled to less than half this, due to habitat loss and severely fragmented populations. A survey carried out between 2002 and 2003 turned up zero Ili pikas in 57 percent of the locations they’d been known to inhabit 20 years previously.
Needless to say, these little guys are in some serious trouble.
The image above was taken by Weidong Li from the Xinjiang Institute for Ecology and Geography, who had originally discovered the species. With a team of volunteers, Li had been scouring the mountains for signs of Ili pikas in early 2014, and as they were setting up their camera traps, they had an encounter with the curious fellow in the image above. "They found it hiding behind a rock, and they realised they had found the pika,” one of the team, Tatsuya Shin, told Carrie Arnold at National Geographic. "They were very excited."
The Ili pika is one of the largest of the pika species, growing up to 250 grams and 20 centimetres long. Like other pika species, it’s evolved to live in cold climates, and makes its dens and burrows in the small crevices that cut into rocky mountainsides and cliff-faces. Pikas are known for the adorable peeps they make when they’re trying to communicate to each other, but for whatever reason, the Ili pika doesn’t seem to vocalise. (Although scientists have only seen 29 of them, so maybe they were just the quiet ones.)
What makes the above photo particularly special, especially for Weidong Li, is that when he carried out the 2002 to 2003 surveys, which involved field exploration over 37 days in seven separate trips between the 14th of June and the 2nd of September 2002, and between the 8th of July and the 24th of September 2003, he and his team did not see one single Ili pika. They found traces of pikas, such as foot prints and droppings, but could not find a single live specimen. They discussed the results in the journal Oryx:
“Our recent censuses failed to make any sightings of the Ili pika, and based on the presence of the characteristic signs of pikas we found only one region (Bayingou), where the Ili pika population may not have declined. The species could not be found at two regions (including at the type locality on Jilimalale mountain), and apparently it has declined drastically at other regions throughout its range. In addition to our census, a decline or disappearance of the Ili pika has been noted by other surveys in the region.”
I still can’t get over how ridiculous that face is. It’s like someone cut the face off a teddy bear, stretched the ears out as far as the stitches would allow, and sewed it onto a fat-bodied rabbit. No wonder it looks so surprised.
Meanwhile, collared pikas (Ochotona collaris) are hiding a disgusting secret behind that comparably disarming face. There’s an isolated population of these pikas living on the small, rocky islands named nanataks that jut out of the icy sea near the Seward Glacier on the Alaskan/Yukon border along the Gulf of Alaska. Just the fact that they’ve managed to make a home for themselves here, in the bleakest of bleak environments, is super-impressive, but wait till you hear how they do it.
“These pikas eat the brains from birds that die while flying overhead and fortuitously fall on the nanataks, giving them their slim margin,” says Grzimek's Animal Life Encyclopedia. When the winter gets particularly bitter, and the vegetation scarce, the pikas here resort to eating whatever they can, and end up stockpiling bird corpses in their dens. It's one of the only known examples of meat-eating in the entire Lagomorpha order, which includes all, pikas, rabbits, and hares. And just another reason why one should avoid spontaneously dying in mid-air above pika territory at all costs.