The Ili Pika May Be the Most Adorable Endangered Species

By: Nicole Antonio & Sascha Bos  | 
Small creature with grey fur, curled up on a rock with lightly falling snow
Photos of the Ili pika are extremely rare. Pictured here is one of its North American relatives, the collared pika, sitting on a rock in Denali National Park, Alaska. P. de Graaf / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • The Ili pika, a rare species found in the Tian Shan mountains of China, measures about 8 inches (20 cm) and prefers high altitudes.
  • Discovered in 1983, the Ili pika is critically endangered due to habitat loss, climate change and a declining population, with fewer than 1,000 individuals remaining.
  • Conservation efforts are crucial to protect this elusive "magic rabbit," which faces significant threats from rising temperatures and human activities.

Imagine a creature that combines the cuteness of a teddy bear with the charm of a rabbit, all wrapped up in the size of a terrier. Meet the Ili pika (Ochotona iliensis), a rare animal that has made its home in the Tian Shan mountains of northwestern China.

But this impossibly endearing "magic rabbit" (so-dubbed by conservationists) faces increased pressure that threatens the already limited pika populations. Read on to learn more about this tiny mammal.



The Discovery of the Ili Pika

In 1983, a scientist named Li Weidong stumbled upon a tiny, gray creature poking its head out from a cluster of rocks while exploring the Xinjiang Province in northwest China. This encounter marked the first recorded sighting of the Ili pika.

Intrigued by what looked like a short-eared rabbit, Li captured a specimen and sent it to the Chinese Academy of Sciences for examination. The academy believed that it was a new species and named it after Li's hometown, Ili.


The Ili pika — measuring about 8 inches (20 cm) in length with large ears and short, gray fur spotted with brown — quickly became a subject of interest for scientists. However, subsequent attempts to locate more of the rare animal in the area proved challenging.

It took another two years for Li to find additional specimens and provide further evidence of the species' existence.


The Ili Pika's Diet and Habitat

The Ili pika lives at relatively high altitudes, preferring elevations between 9,200 and 13,450 feet (2,804 to 4,100 meters) in the Tian Shan mountains.

It has adapted to survive in this harsh environment by subsisting on an herbivorous diet, consisting of mostly mountain plants, herbs and grass. This specialized diet allows the Ili pika to thrive in its rocky habitat, utilizing gaps and holes in cliff faces as dens.


However, the Ili pika's habitat is under threat. Increased grazing pressure from livestock and the effects of global warming have contributed to the decline in the species' population. As temperatures rise, glaciers recede, and the Ili pika is forced to retreat to higher elevations to find areas with permanent snow.

This limited range and the loss of suitable habitat pose significant challenges to the species' survival.


Ili Pika Conservation Status

The Ili pika, a master of hiding, has eluded scientists for decades. Since its discovery, only 29 live individuals have been spotted, making it an extremely rare and elusive species.

Scientists know so little about its behavior, ecology and population size that the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) listed the Ili pika's conservation status as "indeterminate" in 1990; by 1996, the IUCN updated its status to "vulnerable," and by 2008, it was officially "endangered."


The Chinese government also considers the mountain species endangered.

A Race Against Extinction

The population of Ili pikas has experienced a rapid decline since its discovery. Conservationist Li Weidong estimates that its numbers have decreased by nearly 70 percent in the past few decades.

Climate change, in particular, poses a significant threat to the species. Rising temperatures, reduced snowpack and increased rainfall have disrupted the delicate balance of the Ili pika's habitat, making it increasingly difficult for them to find food and shelter.


The Ili pika faces an uncertain future; the lack of concerted conservation efforts exacerbate the challenges it faces. Li Weidong, the species' discoverer, has been vocal about the need for dedicated research and protection for the Ili pika.

However, funding and resources remain limited, hindering conservation efforts.


The Urgency for Conservation Action

As adorable as the teddy bear face and small stature may be, good looks alone are not enough to secure the future of this furry critter. The establishment of conservation areas and nature reserves specifically tailored to the needs of the species can provide a vital lifeline for the Ili pika.

These protected areas would help mitigate the effects of habitat loss, grazing pressure and climate change. Additionally, public support and advocacy can generate the necessary funding and political will to implement conservation measures effectively.


Other Types of Pikas

The Ili pika isn't the only member of the Ochotona genus. There are more than 30 different types of pika species, found primarily in Asia, North America and Eastern Europe.

Pika Species in Asia

Asian pikas, such as the Moupin and Plateau pikas, inhabit diverse environments ranging from rocky areas in mountainous regions to grasslands and meadows.


Their diet primarily comprises grasses, herbs and other vegetation, which they gather and store in heaps to dry for winter consumption, a behavior known as haypiling.

Examples of Asian pikas include:

  • Afghan pika (O. rufescens)
  • Alpine pika (O. alpina)
  • Chinese red pika (O. erythrotis)
  • Daurian pika (O. dauurica)
  • Forrest's pika (O. forresti)
  • Gansu pika (O. cansus)
  • Glover's pika (O. gloveri)
  • Helan Shan pika (O. argentata)
  • Hoffmann's pika (O. hoffmani)
  • Ili pika (O. iliensis)
  • Kazakh pika (O. opaca)
  • Koslov's pika (O. koslowi)
  • Ladak pika (O. ladacensis)
  • Large-eared pika (O. macrotis)
  • Moupin pika (O. thibetana)
  • Northern pika (O. hyperborea)
  • Nubra pika (O. nubrica)
  • Pallas's pika (O. pallasi)
  • Plateau pika (O. curzoniae)
  • Royle's pika (O. roylei)
  • Thomas's pika (O. thomasi)
  • Tsing-ling pika (O. syrinx)
  • Turkestan red pika (O. rutila)

Pika Species in North America

Pikas in North America, particularly the American Pika, typically inhabit rocky mountain slopes known as talus fields, where they find shelter among the boulders and crevices.

Their diet consists of a variety of grasses, mosses, lichens and other mountain vegetation. They exhibit similar food storage behaviors to their Asian counterparts, gathering and drying vegetation for winter sustenance.

Examples of North American pikas include:

  • American pika (O. princeps)
  • Collared pika (O. collaris)

Pika Species in Europe

Pikas found in Eastern Europe, such as the steppe pika, typically inhabit open steppe regions and rocky areas, including grasslands and semidesert environments. They mainly eat various grasses and herbs, adapting to the sparse vegetation available in their habitat.

Examples of European pikas include:

  • Steppe pika (O. pusilla)
  • Turuchan pika (O. turuchanensis)

We created this article in conjunction with AI technology, then made sure it was fact-checked and edited by a HowStuffWorks editor.


Frequently Asked Questions

How does the Ili pika adapt to seasonal changes?
The Ili pika adapts to seasonal changes by growing a thicker fur coat in the winter to survive the cold temperatures of the high mountains. During summer, it sheds this coat to stay cool.
What are the main threats to the Ili pika's survival?
The main threats to the Ili pika's survival include habitat loss due to climate change, human activities and low population numbers, which increase their vulnerability to extinction.