A new species of Pika has been discovered high up in the Sikkim Himalayas. An international team of researchers probed the genetic origins of the little mammal, only to discover an entirely new lineage, with a unique evolutionary past. This work is expected to pave the way for a deeper understanding of biodiversity in the Himalayan region.
Keywords: Biodiversity, Asian Pika, Sikkim Himalayas, natural history, climate change
A new species of Pika has been discovered high up in the Sikkim Himalayas. A team of researchers led by Dr Uma Ramakrishnan and Nishma Dahal at NCBS and their international collaborators, probed the genetic origins of the little mammal, only to discover an entirely new lineage, with a unique evolutionary past. Their work is expected to pave the way for a deeper understanding of biodiversity in the Himalayan region.
Regions such as the Himalayas are well-known for their biodiversity. Nevertheless, the discovery of a new mammalian species in this region highlights the fact that there is still much to learn about the flora and fauna of this unique landscape and that additional studies may lead to more such discoveries.
Pikas are members of the rabbit family and live either high up in the mountains or in cold (temperate) places. They are adapted to living under cold conditions and this feature of their biology makes them sensitive to habitat loss from increasing global temperature. “Pikas are particularly important because they are considered indicators of climate change based on studies in North America. In order to monitor the impact of climate change on species in the Himalayas, we must first know what these species are. Asia is considered to be a hotspot for Pika species, and yet our knowledge of Asian Pikas is limited. So limited, that in 2016, we have discovered a new species in the Sikkim Himalayas”, says Nishma Dahal, the first author of the paper. The new species has been named Ochotona sikimaria.
Dahal used genetic tools in order to understand the origin and evolution of the Pika species commonly found in the Sikkim Himalayas and worked with Pika droppings to obtain DNA samples for testing. By comparing DNA sequences from these samples with those of commonly known Pika sequences from across the world, she concluded that there were clear differences.
The researchers decided to use additional approaches to build on these observations. It took them a two year journey to build the required collaborations with researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Zoological Museum of Moscow and Stanford University. They chose to compare the Sikkim Pika to its close relatives in China. This analysis confirmed the fact that the new species is indeed distinct and not merely a subspecies of the Moupin Pika, as was previously believed. Multiple lines of evidence, including genetics, ecology and morphometrics, were used clarify the origins of the Sikkim Pika and to establish that it is indeed a distinct species.
The new species appears limited to the Sikkim region. The NCBS team have also scouted other Himalayan regions of Arunachal Pradesh, Central Nepal (Annapurna and Langtang), Ladakh and Spiti without success. Surveys in Bhutan, neighboring regions of eastern Nepal and China are are also being considered.
But all is not well for this small mammal. “Pikas are among the most fascinating mammalian species. Unlike other mammalian species inhabiting such harsh environments, Pikas do not hibernate. They prepare for winter by collecting and storing hay piles for their winter food. We must investigate their vulnerability to increasing global temperature, and to do so we must have a better understanding of their ecology and population dynamics. Such information is lacking for Asian Pikas.” says Dahal, a native of Sikkim.
“Pikas may seem like small an insignificant animals, but they are ecosystem engineers, which means they modify and provide critical services to functioning ecosystems. They are unique components of the Himalayan high elevation ecosystem and we must ensure their survival. This will require scientific data that helps better understand their biology.” says Uma Ramakrishnan, whose laboratory at NCBS led the study.
This research was supported by a unique initiative by the Department of Biotechnology for understanding biodiversity in the Sikkim region and also received strong support from the Sikkim Forest Department.
About the work:
The work described in this press release has been published as a paper titled "Genetics, morphology and ecology reveal a cryptic pika lineage in the Sikkim Himalaya." in the Journal Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution in September 2016. The paper can be accessed here: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1055790316302408
About the Authors:
Nishma Dahal is affiliated to the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS), Bangalore, India.
Andrey Lissovsky is affiliated to the Zoological Museum of Moscow State University, Moscow, Russia.
Zhenzhen Lin is affiliated to the Institute of Zoology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing, China.
Katherine Solari is affiliated to the Department of Biology, Stanford University, Stanford, USA.
Elizabeth Hadly is affiliated to the Woods Institute and Department of Biology, Stanford University, Stanford, USA.
Xiangjiang Zhan is affiliated to the the Institute of Zoology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing, China.
Uma Ramakrishnan is affiliated to the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS), Bangalore.
Dr Uma Ramakrishnan can be contacted by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
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Image Credit: 'Dr. Uma Ramakrishnan lab'