Plateau pika

Ochotona curzoniae

TAXONOMY

Ochotona curzoniae (Hodgson, 1858), Chumbi Valley, Tibet, China. No subspecies.

OTHER COMMON NAMES

English: Black-lipped pika.

PHYSICAL CHARACTERISTICS

Body length 4.7-9.8 in (12-25 cm); weight 0.4 lb (200 g). Brownish fur. The nose has a blackish tip and the lips form an indistinct black ring.

DISTRIBUTION

Confined to the high alpine meadows of the Qinghai-Xizang (Tibetan) plateau.

HABITAT

Alpine meadow habitat across the Tibetan plateau. BEHAVIOR

The basic unit of social organization is the family unit that occupies a communal burrow system on alpine meadow habitat. These territories form a matrix of adjoining families, and the average spacing between the centers of activity of these territories is approximately 75 ft (25 m). Location of family burrow system territories is relatively stable on the meadow from year to year, however their composition may vary dramatically. Extremely social: as the density builds within a family burrow system during summer, the frequency of affiliative behavior soars. Rates of behavior may be as high as one social encounter per minute. These behaviors are complemented by a rich vocal repertoire (whines, trills, muffle calls) that appears to initiate many of these social encounters. In contrast to these social behaviors seen within families, most behaviors between individuals from different families are aggressive, long chases and fights.

FEEDING ECOLOGY AND DIET

Generalized herbivores that eat a wide variety of grasses, sedges, and forbs that grow on the high alpine meadows of the Tibetan plateau. The lack of a snowpack on the plateau allows them to forage year-round, and thus they are one of the few pika species that does not build a conspicuous haypile.

REPRODUCTIVE BIOLOGY

Different mating systems exist yearly, relating to current populations of local territories. Have a high rate of reproduction. During the spring to summer breeding season mothers initiate many sequential litters at three-week intervals. Most mothers wean three large litters (up to eight young), while others may produce up to five litters in a year.

CONSERVATION STATUS

Not threatened.

SIGNIFICANCE TO HUMANS

Treated as a pest species for nearly four decades, it is believed that they cause rangeland degradation and eat vegetative resources that could better be utilized by local livestock (primarily yak and sheep). As a result, this species has been poisoned extensively. In Qinghai Province alone, pikas have been poisoned over 80,000 mi2 (200,000 km2), and the onslaught continues. Unfortunately, loss of the plateau pika over vast expanses of the Tibetan Plateau has resulted in a loss of many native species that rely on the pika. Most endemic native birds nest only in pika burrows, and when these collapse following poisoning, the birds disappear. Most predators on the plateau (weasels, ferrets, Pallas's cat, Tibetan fox, wolf, brown bear, upland buzzard, saker falcon, and black-eared kite) rely almost exclusively on pikas in their diet. When the pikas are poisoned, these animals also disappear. Thus, it appears that the plateau pika is a keystone species for biodiversity on the plateau and should be managed accordingly. Fortunately, as of 2002, the tide has been turning toward a policy that embraces the pika rather than one bent on destruction of the species. ♦

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