Wrangel Island: A Hotspot for Polar Diversity

Do you think of a barren landscape when you hear the term “Arctic island”? Think again. Wrangel Island completely defies this stereotype.

At 79 kilometres wide, Wrangel Island sits in the Eastern Siberian Sea and is the largest island in the eastern Russian Arctic. Through its tumultuous history, it’s been variously known as Ostrov Vrangelya, Kellett Land, Plover Land, and New Columbia. You might guess from this that it has fought over by different countries. But it’s been Russian since 1924.

Some of Wrangel Island’s mountain ridges reach 2,500 feet. The island is one of only five UNESCO world heritage sites in the Arctic. It was an obvious candidate for this kind of recognition given its huge range of flora and fauna–almost unique in the Arctic. This remarkable ecological diversity developed because, unlike many Arctic islands, Wrangel Island was not glaciated during the Quaternary Ice Age. As a result, it is home to over 400 plant species, much more than any other Arctic island. It is also known for its hundreds of mosses and 310 lichen species. No wonder it’s been called a “hotspot for polar biodiversity.”

Wrangel Island is also a birder’s paradise; it’s home to about 24 bird species, including Asia’s only snow geese, and it’s a northern nursery for over 100 migratory bird species, including the Snowy Owl and the Peregrine Falcon.

The island is also a polar bear nursery. The gorgeous white bears live there year-round and construct their dens near the coast and coastal lowlands. They share the tundra with reindeer, muskoxen, and Arctic foxes and the coast with Pacific walruses. Perhaps the most striking fact about Wrangel Island’s natural history is that the last remaining woolly mammoth lived on the island until about 2500-2000 BCE.

Blog subscribers will know that this remarkable island played a significant role in the history of Arctic exploration and that Bob Bartlett’s crew from the sunken Karluk were stranded here, bringing tragedy to the Canadian Arctic Expedition of 1913-1918.

In a recent post, I included some photos of Wrangel Island in all its uniqueness and beauty.

SOURCES: Hoag H. High stakes in the high north. Cosmos, 2017; UNESCO. Natural System of Wrangel Island Reserve’, World Heritage Convention. 2018; Taylor A. Studying the Arctic Wildlife of Russia’s Wrangel Island. The Atlantic, October 18, 2017; Bouglouan N. Wrangel Island Bird Species, Arctic Ocean, n.d.; Diubaldo R.J. Wrangling over Wrangel Island. Canadian Historical Review, 1967, no. 3 (48), pp. 201–26; Kos’ko M., Lopatin B., Ganelin V. Major Geological Features of the Islands of the East Siberian and Chukchi Seas and the Northern Coast of Chukotka. Marine Geology, 1990, (93), pp. 349–67; Kazmin V.D., Kholod S.S., Rozenfeld S.B., Abaturov B.D. Current state of forage resources and feeding of reindeer (Rangifer tarandus) and musk oxen (Ovibos moschatus) in the arctic tundras of Wrangel Island. Biology Bulletin, 2011, no. 7 (3), pp. 747-753; Barr W. The Voyages of Taymyr and Vaygach to Ostrov Vrangelya, 1910-15. Polar Record, 1972, no. 101 (16), pp. 213–34; Howlin S., Stishov M., McDonald L., Schliebe S. Den site selection by polar bears on Wrangel Island’, in N Lunn, S Schliebe and E Born Ed. by Polar Bears, Proceedings of the 13th Working Meeting of the IUCN/SSC Polar Bear Specialist Group, Nuuk, Greenland, 2002, pp. 127-155.

PHOTO CREDITS: The Great Canadian Travel Group Inc; the Ottawa Citizen; NASA.

This blog is written by Maura Hanrahan, the author of Unchained Man: The Arctic Life and Times of Captain Robert Abram Bartlett. You are invited to subscribe to the blog by going to the Contact page, clicking the bars in the top right corner, and then clicking the small blue bar that says “following.” Then you’ll get an entry every couple of weeks or so delivered right to your inbox.

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