Ochotona curzoniaeblack-lipped pika

Geographic Range

Black-lipped pikas are found in the Alpine meadows and steppes of the Tibetan plateau in the Chang Taung region of the People’s Republic of China. (Schaller, 1998)


Ochotona curzoniae prefers to make burrows in flat to gently sloping terrain and silty to sandy-soiled meadow lands with few rocks and good drainage at elevations up to 5300 meters. (Schaller, 1998)

  • Range elevation
    5300 (high) m
    17388.45 (high) ft

Physical Description

Black-lipped pikas are small, chunky, and lack a conspicuous tail. They have characteristic black lips and thick fur which is brown to reddish tan on the dorsal side and light gray on the ventral side. There is no sexual dimorphism in size or coloration and it is difficult to determine males from females by the external genitalia. (Dobson, et al., 2000; Schaller, 1998)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • sexes alike
  • Range mass
    0.1 to 0.2 kg
    0.22 to 0.44 lb


Black-lipped pikas employ several mating systems. Most commonly, black-lipped pikas live in monogamous family groups made up of and adult male and female, juveniles, and younger animals. Both polygamy and polyandry have been recorded among O. curzoniae; this most commonly happens when an adult black-lipped pika dies and its mate joins another family group. Promiscuity has also been observed, though it is not common. (Dobson, et al., 1998; Dobson, et al., 2000; Smith and Gao, 1991; Smith, 1988)

Female black-lipped pikas breed and produce litters every three weeks during summer months. As the summer continues, more food becomes available and each successive litter becomes larger throughout the summer. During the mating season, there is intense male-male competition for females. Once family groups are formed, intergroup aggression keeps families together. Also, social interaction via grooming, boxing, communication and other contact helps to maintain social relationships. Communication reaches its peak during the weaning period of a new litter so that juveniles maintain strong social bonds with each other and their parents. Female O. curzoniae can, and often do, breed within the same summer of their own birth.

It was once thought that black-lipped pikas practiced a great deal of inbreeding to maintain family ties. However, it has since been discovered that roughly 97% of males leave their family range during the spring just before mating season. These males usually move to neighboring family groups. Some females also disperse from their natal family groups to join neighboring ones. This behavior helps to reduce the negative effects of inbreeding; however, the most successful matings usually occur between family members. (Dobson, et al., 1998; Dobson, et al., 2000; Schaller, 1998; Smith and Gao, 1991; Smith, 1988)

  • Breeding interval
    Breeding can occur every three weeks during the summer months.
  • Breeding season
    The female is in estrous for one day during the week that copulation occurs.
  • Range number of offspring
    1 to 8
  • Average number of offspring
  • Range gestation period
    21 to 24 days
  • Average weaning age
    21 days
  • Average time to independence
    3 weeks

One unusual feature about O. curzoniae is that males invest heavily in offspring. Their behaviors consist of vigilance and awareness of the surroundings. They look out for potential predators as well as help maintain home range boundaries. The majority of juvenile-adult interactions occur with adult males rather than the females.

Females have limited interactions with offspring outside of nursing. A mother spends the majority of her time foraging so that she can provide enough energy to feed her young and prepare for the next litter, which quickly follows.

After three weeks, the offspring are weaned and go through a period of learning, generally with an adult male. The litters usually remain with their family for the first winter and disperse in spring before the reproductive season. (Dobson, et al., 1998; Dobson, et al., 2000; Smith and Gao, 1991; Smith, 1988)

  • Parental Investment
  • altricial
  • pre-fertilization
    • provisioning
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-hatching/birth
    • provisioning
      • female
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-weaning/fledging
    • provisioning
      • female
    • protecting
      • male
  • pre-independence
    • protecting
      • male
  • post-independence association with parents
  • extended period of juvenile learning


The life expectancy of O. curzoniae is short because this species faces harsh winters and high parasitosis. Few members of each family group survive to the next spring. About 15.7% survive to breed during first year after birth, and only 1.5% survive to breed during their second year. (Smith and Gao, 1991; Wang and Dai, 1989)

  • Range lifespan
    Status: wild
    957 (high) days
  • Average lifespan
    Status: wild
    119.9 days
  • Average lifespan
    Status: wild
    119.9 days


Black-lipped pika families usually consist of one adult male, one adult female and 5-10 juveniles from at least 2 litters. They live in burrows comprising several tunnels and entrances. These allow a wide foraging area and quick access to protection from predators. Burrows also have many openings to above ground latrines. Tunnels can stretch for over 800 cm and are generally 20-40 cm below the turf.

Burrow and family structures are more cohesive on the plateau meadow lands than they are on the plateau desert. It is suggested that the greater abundance of food on the meadow makes it easier for a large family to live together without competing for resources. Families are generally territorial, and males chase off members of other families.

Females spend over 62% of their time foraging to maintain the high energy level necessary for almost constant gestation and lactation. Once weaning occurs, it is the males that interact with the juveniles during the learning process leading up to adulthood. Males also protect and maintain the burrow and home range of the family.

Ochotona curzoniae does not hibernate even during harsh winters. Foraging activity usually begins at sunrise and. Black-lipped pikas remain active periodically throughout much of the day. (Dobson, et al., 1998; Schaller, 1998; Smith and Gao, 1991; Smith, 1988)

  • Average territory size
    1000 m^2

Home Range

Ochotona curzoniae average adult home range is about 1000 square meters with the juvenile range about 900 square meters. (Smith and Gao, 1991)

Communication and Perception

Black-lipped pikas communicate with family members by grooming, boxing and other contact to maintain social bonds. There is also frequent vocal communication informing the family of potential threats. (Dobson, et al., 1998; Smith and Gao, 1991; Smith, 1988)

Food Habits

Black-lipped pikas spend the majority of their time foraging for food. Those that live in meadows can store large amounts of forage in hay piles, for later consumption. Desert dwelling O. curzoniae cannot easily create hay stores because high winds blow it away, and less cohesive social structures make it more difficult to protect caches. (Schaller, 1998; Smith and Gao, 1991; Smith, 1988)

  • Plant Foods
  • leaves
  • seeds, grains, and nuts
  • flowers


Ochotona curzoniae are preyed upon by birds of prey, including common kestrels (Falco tinnunculus), black kites (Milvus lineatus), upland buzzards (Buteo hemilasius), and weasels and polecats (Mustela). They avoid predation primarily through their vigilance, cryptic coloration, and tendency to remain under cover of foliage or rocks when active. (Lai and Smith, 2003; Schaller, 1998)

  • Anti-predator Adaptations
  • cryptic

Ecosystem Roles

Black-lipped pikas feed on seeds, and they disperse those seeds to some extent. However, since they have a limited home range, the seeds are not dispersed far from where they were collected. They are reservoirs for parasitic species such as fleas. Poisoning of Ochotona curzoniae by local people to reduce the destruction created by burrows has lead to the death of several bird species, for example Montifringilla and Pyrgilauda as well as Pseudopodoces humilis>. These birds are known to nest in black-lipped pika burrows and are harmed by the poison used to cull the pika population. (Lai and Smith, 2003; Schaller, 1998)

  • Ecosystem Impact
  • disperses seeds
Commensal/Parasitic Species

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

Ochotona curzoniae in low densities eat the foods untouched by livestock, and their excrement fertilizes the plants that livestock do eat. (Schaller, 1998)

  • Positive Impacts
  • produces fertilizer

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

Black-lipped pikas have been blamed for soil erosion caused by burrowing and also for eating the vegetation normally fed upon by livestock. Generally, soil erosion is present before burrows have been created. At high densities, O. curzoniae populations do compete with livestock for vegetation. (Schaller, 1998)

Conservation Status

Pastoralists have used zinc phosphate to poison black-lipped pikas in hopes of reducing competition with livestock for vegetation. These pikas are not currently threatened, but further persecution and habitat changes may threaten populations in the future. (Schaller, 1998)


Tanya Dewey (editor), Animal Diversity Web.

Cara Ocobock (author), University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, Phil Myers (editor, instructor), Museum of Zoology, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.



living in the northern part of the Old World. In otherwords, Europe and Asia and northern Africa.

World Map


uses sound to communicate


young are born in a relatively underdeveloped state; they are unable to feed or care for themselves or locomote independently for a period of time after birth/hatching. In birds, naked and helpless after hatching.

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.


uses smells or other chemicals to communicate


having markings, coloration, shapes, or other features that cause an animal to be camouflaged in its natural environment; being difficult to see or otherwise detect.

desert or dunes

in deserts low (less than 30 cm per year) and unpredictable rainfall results in landscapes dominated by plants and animals adapted to aridity. Vegetation is typically sparse, though spectacular blooms may occur following rain. Deserts can be cold or warm and daily temperates typically fluctuate. In dune areas vegetation is also sparse and conditions are dry. This is because sand does not hold water well so little is available to plants. In dunes near seas and oceans this is compounded by the influence of salt in the air and soil. Salt limits the ability of plants to take up water through their roots.

  1. active during the day, 2. lasting for one day.

animals that use metabolically generated heat to regulate body temperature independently of ambient temperature. Endothermy is a synapomorphy of the Mammalia, although it may have arisen in a (now extinct) synapsid ancestor; the fossil record does not distinguish these possibilities. Convergent in birds.


an animal that mainly eats leaves.


Referring to a burrowing life-style or behavior, specialized for digging or burrowing.


an animal that mainly eats seeds


An animal that eats mainly plants or parts of plants.


offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).


Having one mate at a time.


having the capacity to move from one place to another.


This terrestrial biome includes summits of high mountains, either without vegetation or covered by low, tundra-like vegetation.

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.


Referring to a mating system in which a female mates with several males during one breeding season (compare polygynous).


having more than one female as a mate at one time

seasonal breeding

breeding is confined to a particular season


remains in the same area


reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female


associates with others of its species; forms social groups.

stores or caches food

places a food item in a special place to be eaten later. Also called "hoarding"


uses touch to communicate


that region of the Earth between 23.5 degrees North and 60 degrees North (between the Tropic of Cancer and the Arctic Circle) and between 23.5 degrees South and 60 degrees South (between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Antarctic Circle).


Living on the ground.


defends an area within the home range, occupied by a single animals or group of animals of the same species and held through overt defense, display, or advertisement

tropical savanna and grassland

A terrestrial biome. Savannas are grasslands with scattered individual trees that do not form a closed canopy. Extensive savannas are found in parts of subtropical and tropical Africa and South America, and in Australia.


A grassland with scattered trees or scattered clumps of trees, a type of community intermediate between grassland and forest. See also Tropical savanna and grassland biome.

temperate grassland

A terrestrial biome found in temperate latitudes (>23.5° N or S latitude). Vegetation is made up mostly of grasses, the height and species diversity of which depend largely on the amount of moisture available. Fire and grazing are important in the long-term maintenance of grasslands.


A terrestrial biome with low, shrubby or mat-like vegetation found at extremely high latitudes or elevations, near the limit of plant growth. Soils usually subject to permafrost. Plant diversity is typically low and the growing season is short.


reproduction in which fertilization and development take place within the female body and the developing embryo derives nourishment from the female.


Dobson, F., A. Smith, W. Gao. 1998. Social and ecological influences on dispersal and philopatry in the plateau pika (Ochotona curzoniae). Behavioral Ecology, 9: 622-635.

Dobson, F., A. Smith, W. Gao. 2000. The mating system and gene dynamics of plateau pikas. Behavioural Processes, 51: 101-110.

Lai, C., A. Smith. 2003. Keystone status of plateau pikas (Ochotona curzoniae): effect of control on biodiversity of native birds. Biodiversity and Conservation, 12(9): 1901-1912.

Schaller, G. 1998. Wildlife of the Tibetan Steppe. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Smith, A. 1988. Patterns of Pika (Genus Ochotona) Life History Variation. Pp. 233-256 in M Boyce, ed. Evolution of Life Histories of Mammals Theory and Pattern. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Smith, A., W. Gao. 1991. Social Relationships of Adult Black-Lipped pikas (Ochotona curzoniae). Journal of Mammalogy, 72: 231-247.

Wang, G., K. Dai. 1989. Natural Longevity of Plateau Pika. Acta Theriologica Sinica, 9: 56-62.

Yu, N., C. Zheng, L. Shi. 1997. Variation in Mitochondrial DNA and Phylogny of Six Species of Pikas (Ochotona). Jourmal of Mammalogy, 78: 387-396.