Commander State Biosphere Reserve
By Rowena Mynott
Russia is not your average tourist destination, but it’s here in an isolated corner of the Bering Sea where the Commander State Biosphere Reserve (CSBR) can be found. Created in 1993, this reserve covers 36, 648 square kilometres including Bering Island, Medny Island and 13 other smaller islands and outcrops. As well as terrestrial sanctuary zones, there is a 21, 774-square-kilometre area of marine buffer zone – an area where fishing is prohibited.
The Commander Islands are appropriately called the ‘land of winds and fogs’. With fog descending on the islands for two months of the year and hurricane-force winds of 110 kilometres per hour roaring for days almost every month, survival here is harsh. High precipitation feeds inland waters such as rivers, springs, streams, lakes and swamps; areas that are used by wildlife to live and breed. A former sea bay, Sarannoye Lake is the largest lake in the area and is the lake of choice for red salmon that visit to spawn.
The CSBR is a refuge for over a million seabirds as well as 25 species of marine mammals (including several large cetacean species as well as smaller cetaceans) and two rare endemic species of arctic fox. Flora is also prevalent across the area with 383 species of rare plants living here.
Siberian salamander – Salamandrella keyserlingii
The only species of salamander found within the Arctic Circle, the Siberian salamander is famed for its ability to survive deep freezes. In fact, some have been known to survive frozen in temperatures of -45°C for years and, more remarkably, having walked off once thawed. It manages this impressive feat by replacing the water in its body with anti-freeze chemicals.
Its nine-centimetre-long body is covered in olive-grey smooth skin. The tail is longer than the body and the male salamander’s tail is longer than that of the female. As well as a longer tail, the male’s front legs are longer, and both sexes have four toes on each foot, all of which are clawless.
The eggs of the salamander will hatch four weeks after being laid, releasing up to 240 larval salamanders up to 12 millimetres in length.
Kamchatka brown bear – Ursus arctos beringianus
Reaching up to 700 kilograms, Kamchatka brown bears are one of the largest species of bear, and compared to their brown bear cousins, they are fairly good-natured with only an estimated 1% of bear/human interactions ending in an attack.
The Commander Islands have some of the best bear habitat in the world. The area that a bear requires to thrive can vary greatly. During salmon spawning season or in areas where salmon are prolific, bears only require around 12 square kilometres. Where food is harder to obtain or predation higher, bears roam further and will claim a territory of 1100 square kilometres or greater. The abundance of inland waterways within the Commander Islands provide an ideal resting and breeding ground for salmon, which attract large congregations of bears that can be found along the many streams and waterways.
Given their size and impressive stature, these bears are prized trophies for hunters visiting the region.
Snow sheep – Ovis nivicola
The snow sheep is an adept mountain dweller that relies on its agility to reach grasses, lichens and mosses. A light brown woolly coat assists to protect against the harsh winter weather.
Both male and female are recognisable by their large antlers, a feature that unfortunately makes them a prize target for hunters. The horns are lighter than other horned species such as the bighorn sheep, containing 35% less horn substance. In older animals, the bases of the horns are large measuring 38 centimetres in diameter. The horns corkscrew around past the animal’s ears and may even reach a second rotation. Horns are occasionally used like battering rams, to show dominance. The larger males will face off at a distance and, with heads lowered, will run towards each other crashing their horns together upon impact in attempt to throw their rival off balance.
Puffins – Fratercula spp.
Puffins are pelagic seabirds that are easily recognisable by their characteristic large yellow and orange beaks, stocky bodies and black and white plumage.
Two species of puffin can be found in the Commander State Biosphere Reserve: the tufted (F. cirrhata) and the horned (F. corniculata). During the breeding season the puffin’s bill is at its most vibrant. However, once this season comes to a close, the outer shell of the beak is shed, leaving behind a smaller dull beak.
The horned puffin is similar in appearance to the Atlantic puffin with the same colouration and a small dark tick mark through their eyes. These birds winter far out to sea, with the parent returning to its chick with several small fish in its beak at a time. Whilst the population of these birds are still listed as not threatened, there has been a decline due to the introduction of rats onto some of the nesting islands.
The tufted puffin varies in appearance from the other two species. Although its plumage is lacking in white colouration, the characteristic large puffin beak is still present which, in the tufted puffin, is predominantly red. Yellow tufts appear on the bird’s head during breeding season and their feet turn bright red.
As with the other puffins breeding takes place on isolated islands with 25,000 pairs being recorded in one colony alone.
Arctic fox – Alopex lagopus
Native to Arctic regions of the Northern Hemisphere, this small white fox is critically adapted to live in some of the harshest environments on the planet. Thick fur, a good supply of body fat and a system of countercurrent heat exchange in the circulation of the paws allow these small mammals to keep warm in temperatures that drop as low as -50°C.
Living in such harsh terrain it is necessary to be in possession of some very specific adaptations. The scientific name of the Arctic fox literally translates from the Greek word ‘Alopex’ meaning ‘a fox’ and the Latin ‘lagopus’ meaning ‘hare foot’, an adaptation that allows the foxes to walk on ice in search of food. Other features include lighter coats to allow a natural camouflage amongst the treeless snow covered terrain, and in summer these coats change to brown in order to camouflage with the muddy grasslands.
Forming monogamous pairs, the parents will raise their litter of up to eight kits in dens that are formed underground. These dens are a complex system of underground networks that may house many generations of foxes.
Taxonomy remains unsettled but there may be two subspecies of Arctic fox found in the Commander State Biosphere Reserve; one of which (A. l. semenovi) is endangered and endemic to the area.