Studying a Polar Menagerie On an Island in Arctic Russia

As I sit on the snowmobile behind the bear-shaped body of Dr. Alexander Gruzdev, the director of Russia’s Wrangel Island Nature Reserve, I am reminded that not moving when the temperature plunges to -20 F is a bad idea. Normally accustomed to riding my own snowmobiles in Alaska or the Norwegian Arctic, I can usually stay warm thanks to bouncing and steering. But sitting still behind Alexander, my feet — especially my heels — grow cold. I recognize this as a bad sign, and think of early polar expeditions where heel rot was common. 

Numbness soon spreads to my fingers, but I take heart that my goggles — only half frozen by inner fog — allow me to see half of the landscape, including tracks of polar bear and a small wolf pack traveling in synchrony. 

Spring has officially begun, but on Russia’s Wrangel Island — 300 miles north of the Arctic Circle, in the East Siberian Sea — the date on the calendar means little. As we scientists and accompanying staff travel 30 miles on three snowmobiles, pulling three sleds, the wind bites worse than on recent days, making -20 F feel like -45. We pass 11 groups of muskoxen, planning to return so we can accurately measure the size of the oxen and their calves using a photographic technique known as photogrammetry. These short-legged dwellers of polar deserts are fine with cold temperatures, but they avoid deep snow. Squat bodies on short legs do not make travel through deep snow energetically efficient. At this time of the year, muskoxen scarcely move, and they live mostly off their body fat, akin to the below-ground lifestyle of hibernating bears. 

Among our group is Olga Starova, the reserve’s 27-year-old lead scientist. She is highly motivated and in superb condition, equally game to walk 12 miles through the snow or to bounce along on the back of a carriage being dragged by a snowmobile. She represents the full-time scientific staff of the reserve and monitors its eclectic assortment of wildlife. After I leave, she will study the roughly 70,000 lesser snow geese that arrive from the U.S. Pacific Northwest, thousands of miles away, and summer on Wrangel. They are Asia’s only snow geese, and Olga will record data on clutch size, hatchling success, and arrival and departure dates.

Joel Berger with Olga Starova (right), a Russian scientist who monitors Wrangel Island's eclectic assortment of wildlife.

Joel Berger with Olga Starova (right), a Russian scientist who monitors Wrangel Island's eclectic assortment of wildlife. Joel Berger

Not quite a Noah’s Ark, Wrangel Island — nearly the size Yellowstone National Park — is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, recognized for its polar fauna and flora. The non-glaciated island, with mountains reaching 4,000 feet and rivers 30 miles in length, has 417 species and sub-species of plants — more than any other Arctic island. As many as 100,000 walruses live in Wrangel’s waters in the ice-free months. Wrangel was once home to wild Asiatic horses and Pleistocene bison, and wooly mammoths inhabited the island until about 3,000 years ago. The island is believed to have the highest density of polar bear dens in the world. No one knows exactly how many polar bears breed on Wrangel, but a 2004 survey counted 261 animals. We observed polar bears at close range during our expedition as they wandered around our various camps or lumbered across the tundra. 

The recent existence of two land carnivores also intrigues me. Wolves have colonized from the mainland, 90 miles distant, traversing the frozen Arctic Ocean. How they figured out that there was prey here, in the form of reindeer introduced in 1948, is unclear. Another recently arrived species is the wolverine, which we photographed using camera traps. 

Later in our expedition, I set out with Olga and some local staff to measure muskoxen using photogrammetry. Wind-whipped snow splatters my goggles as I choke on fumes from the stinky, two-stroke snowmobile that is pulling our sled. After taking several hours to cross 15 miles of frozen tundra, we hike up a mountain and get within close range to photograph muskoxen in their defensive circle. We shoot photos of their head sizes at different angles and use a laser range-finder to plot our exact distance to them. 

Olga is a quick study, apt at learning the variation in horn and head size shapes in adults and juveniles. Later, staying at a meteorological station in the village of Ushkatova — which, with our presence, has now swelled to 18 human inhabitants — Olga and I sit for four hours in front of the computer. We measure head-size dimensions of these Pleistocene survivors from our photos, then run the measurements through a series of algorithms. Today, we were lucky: Five juveniles can be added to our Wrangel data base, all without the risk, expense, or logistical nightmares of tranquilizing animals to measure them. 

It has taken me more than eight months to arrange permissions to be here as part of the Shared Beringia Heritage Program of the U.S. National Park Service, the Trust for Mutual Understanding, and the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Beringia Program. Our interest is in how Wrangel Island’s muskoxen compare to populations on the Alaskan side of Beringia. If different, why? Could it be the result of nutritional variation? Or perhaps differences in climate change between the Russian and American Arctic? 

This is the second of three blog posts from the field by conservation biologist Joel Berger.

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