A stiff wind buffeted the helicopter as it set down near the gravel shore of Wrangel Island, a remote spot of land 300 miles north of the Arctic Circle in Russia’s extreme Far East. After flying two and a half hours from Pevek, Russia, mostly over open water, the aircraft smelled of vodka and gasoline from the extra fuel cans secured inside. Joel Berger peered up at the white hills that rose around him and spotted several black flecks on the slopes: his quarry, muskoxen.
These shaggy, horned creatures are one of the many archetypal Arctic species that thrive on Wrangel Island, a little-known hotspot for polar biodiversity. Berger, a wildlife biologist at Colorado State University, came to Wrangel as part of a joint Russian-American project to understand how climate change and other factors, such as predation by polar bears, might be affecting the island’s roughly 900 muskoxen. The island’s isolation, along with its cold, dry polar climate, have created a unique and surprisingly biodiverse ecosystem. Despite the harsh conditions, more than 400 varieties of plants persist here—twice the number found on any other similarly sized piece of Arctic tundra—as well as hundreds of mosses and lichens. Some of them are not found anywhere else on Earth.
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