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Rare Pika Comes Out of Hiding After More Than 20 Years

Mar 20, 2015 05:17 PM EDT
Ili pika

(Photo : LI WEIDONG/Wikimedia Commons)

After more than 20 years of eluding scientists, a rare pika species has finally come out of hiding.

The Ili pika (Ochotona iliensis) is a type of tiny, mountain-dwelling mammal that lives in the Tianshan Mountains of northwestern China. And with a face resembling that of a teddy bear, it may just be the most adorable thing that you've ever seen.

But this little guy apparently doesn't want to be found. Even the first time an Ili pika was discovered in 1983 it was by accident. And since then, sightings have been few and far between. Only 29 live individuals have been spotted in total, leaving scientists to guess about the animal's ecology and behavior.

So when lead investigator Weidong Li - who originally found the species - and his colleagues at the Xinjiang Institute for Ecology and Geography rediscovered the pika in 2014, needless to say they were excited.

"They found it hiding behind a rock, and they realized they had found the pika," Tatsuya Shin, a naturalist in China who works with the pika's discoverers, told National Geographic.

Like other species of pika found in North America, the Ili pika lives at high elevations - between 9,200 and 13,450 feet (2,800 to 4,100 meters) - and subsists mainly on grasses, herbs, and other mountain plants.

But these and other poor pikas are extremely sensitive to changes in their environment, and are losing their mountainous habitat to climate change.

Though some of these cute creatures have demonstrated their incredible resilience in the face of danger, even they may not be able to adapt to our increasingly warming world. As temperatures rise, pikas are abandoning their low-elevation habitat and moving to higher ground to escape the heat.

As for the Ili pika, there are only about 2,000 of them left in the wild (based on a 1990s estimate), and populations are falling fast. They are labeled as an endangered species according to the IUCN Red List.

Grazing pressure from livestock and air pollution have also likely contributed to the decline of the Ili pika, and Li and his team hope that more will be done in the future to help these rabbit relatives survive.

Otherwise, Ili pikas will end up playing a game of hide and seek that won't end up in a happy rediscovery.

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

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