PIKA | SMALLEST REPRESENTATIVES OF THE LAGOMORPHS
The Sardinian pika is an extinct species of pika that was once native to the Mediterranean islands of Sardinia, Corsica, and neighboring islands until it was wiped out by the Romans. The Sardinian pika was the last surviving member of the genus Prolagus, which was originally widespread over western Eurasia and North Africa throughout the Miocene and Pliocene epochs.
Thanks to multiple bone findings at Corbeddu Cave near Oliena, Sardinia, the whole skeletal anatomy of the Sardinian pika was rebuilt in 1967. Years later, the same researchers, led by paleontologist Mary R. Dawson of the United States, were able to produce an accurate plaster reconstruction from these remains. The Sardinian pika was likely much stockier and more robust than current pika species, resembling a mix between a huge wild rabbit and a pika. In 2016, the first articulated skeletons of P. sardus were discovered.
The P. figaro-P. sardus lineage was formerly assumed to be the most closely related mainland species to the Pliocene French species P. depereti, which was originally identified as a subspecies of P. figaro. However, the oldest known Prolagus remnants from Sardinia, known as P. aff. figaro, are more closely related to P. sorbinii, an Eastern European species that moved westwards throughout the Messinian, with well-known remnants from central Italy from the late Miocene and early Pliocene. Prolagus sardus’ earliest unequivocal remains originate from the Middle Pleistocene, when the two islands were occasionally connected due to sea level variations. The presence of Prolagus aided in the formation of the islands’ first human populations. People hunted and ate the Sardinian pika, according to Jean-Denis Vigne’s findings. Many of the Sardinian pikas’ limb bones were shattered and burned at one end, indicating that this species was roasted and eaten by Corsican Neolithic migrants.
Agricultural methods, the introduction of predators, and ecological competition all contributed to the extinction of the Sardinian pika in Corsica and Sardinia during the Roman era. The demise of P. sardus may also be due to disease transmission via rabbits and hares brought by the Romans to Sardinia and Corsica. The species may have lived longer on small islands near Sardinia, maybe until around 300 years ago on the island of Tavolara off Sardinia’s northeast coast.
In addition to Roman zooarchaeological finds, the Greek historian Polybius described the presence of a Corsican animal known as the kyniklos, which “looks like a small hare from a distance, but when captured it differs much from a hare in appearance and taste” and “lives for the most part under the ground” in his work The Histories. Because there were no hare species in Corsica at the time, this animal could have been the Sardinian pika. Francesco Cetti reported in 1774 that Tavolara had “huge rats whose tunnels are so numerous that one might imagine the surface of the land had lately been turned over by pigs,” a reference to the Sardinian pika. Barbara Wilkens, however, questioned this in a 2000 book, claiming that the animals cited by Cetti were more likely brown rats.