Young biologist discovers a new species of Asian Pika in Sikkim

Young biologist discovers a new species of Asian Pika in Sikkim

N.B. Nair

Bangalore (ISJ) ? A young biological researcher has identified a news species of Pika in the Himalayan region of Sikkim. The new specie, biologically known as Ochotona sikimaria, is morphologically similar to Moupinpika, but it is different genetically.

Pikas are cute members of the rabbit family that look like tailless rats and have been in the news in North America for their sensitivity to increasing temperature, which has caused several populations to go extinct. Pikas live high up on the mountain or in cold (temperate) places, as they are highly cold adapted. This feature of their biology makes them sensitive to losing their habitat from increasing global temperature. Asia is the hotspot for pika species, and yet our knowledge of Asian pikas is very poor.

The Sikkim Pika, though very common in the mountainous region of Sikkim, was considered as Ochotona thibetana sikimaria as most pika species look quite similar to each other. But researcher Nishma Dahal from National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS), Bangalore conducted its DNA sequencing to compare with other pika species to find its distinctness. She collected pika pellets to access their DNA and identify the species.

When Nishma compared these DNA sequences to those of other known pika species across the world, she saw that they were quite different. Subsequent fieldwork where animals were captured to sample a small bit of tissue allowed her to collect data that are more extensive and investigate their evolutionary origins and species identity in detail.

?Comparing the DNA sequences of Sikkim pika with other pika species made it possible to identify its distinctness. So we were looking to understand more about the origin of this species but our results were surprising,? Nishma Dahal told Indian Science Journal.

Pikas are cold adapted species. In the Himalaya, it is found 2600 meters and above at very cold environmental conditions. If we look at their global distribution, it lives either high in the mountains or in cold regions.

?We have no studies with conclusive proof in India. We must investigate their vulnerability, and to do so we must study their ecology and population dynamics through long term studies. Such information is lacking for Asian pikas. Our finding shows how little we know about this species,? said Nishma.

But it is a daunting task to conclusively study the population dynamics of Sikkim Pika, as the Himalayan topography is challenging. Besides, the population of Pika extend beyond national boundaries and require international collaboration in its research, she said.

Nishma is now planning to develop climatic models of these species to investigate how their range size has changed. She also plans to resolve the taxonomic ambiguities of Pikas, to understand its evolutionary history.

?Overall, mountains are interesting and studying species restricted to mountains will give important insights,? she told ISJ.

Image courtesy: DBT website

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