Bison are being introduced to the Russian Arctic to replace extinct woolly mammoths. But why?
Researchers have brought bison into their region of the Russian Arctic to assume the mammoth’s role that was lost to them and assist in restoring old ecosystems.
Twelve plains bison ( Bison bison bison) are now in Ingilor Nature Park, a protected area that covers over 2.2 million acres (900,000 hectares) in the northern Yamal-Nenets Autonomous Area. According to the announcement, the animals traveled 5 miles (8,000 kilometers) from an animal sanctuary in Denmark. They departed from their lengthy journey three weeks before they could find their new home; bison -also known as buffalos, commonly referred to in the wild as buffalo– must undergo a one-month quarantine.
“Buffalo can easily adapt to the Arctic because, historically, it is their natural habitat,” the Yamal-Nenets autonomous area Department of Natural Resources and Environment stated in an additional declaration. “They can take on the role of mammoths, which became extinct 11,000 years ago.”
Steppe bison, and woolly mammoths, roamed across the Russian Arctic in the latter part of the Pleistocene era (2.6 million till 11,700 years back). While a few severely damaged mammoths remained on an island in the Gulf of Alaska up to 4000 years ago, the majority of herbivores ended up dying in the middle of the ice age as the climate grew warmer and grassy plains gave way to trees and shrubs.
“The Pleistocene ecosystem was treeless and had quite thick soils,” Mary Edwards, an emeritus faculty member of the Department of Physical Geography from the University of Southampton in the U.K., said to Live Science. “What you can see in geological sections of these landscapes is that, over time, they’re storing soil carbon — the permafrost freezes it, and it’s a big carbon stack.”
The animals roamed the cold plains were instrumental in shaping the landscape by feeding on the land and reusing nutrients. “It’s a nice cycle of animal dung fertilizing the ground and allowing the plants to grow,” Edwards explained. “The thought is that the animals maintained the ecosystem.”
An ‘interesting idea.’
To revive this Pleistocene landscape and increase its ability to absorb carbon emissions, scientists are trying to introduce large herbivores like plains bison to various areas in the Arctic.
Nikita Zimov, the director of the conservation project known as Pleistocene Park in Yakutia, has been taking bison from Denmark since 2019. “For our rewilding efforts, we are bringing to the Arctic animals which either lived here during the ice age or those who could live here in the modern climate,” he wrote to Live Science in an email.
In the year 2000, Zimov bought a herd of 24 bison, the majority of which was donated the other half to Ingilor Nature Park in exchange for 14 muskoxen ( Ovibos moschatus). The musk oxen nearly went extinct in the early 1900s, and a handful of scattered herds remain within the Russian Arctic, Zimov claimed.
With the musk oxen on their way to Pleistocene Park, Zimov said he “aims to restore high productive grazing ecosystems in the Arctic, and through various ecological mechanisms mitigate climate change.”
However, Edwards is doubtful. Animals can alter ecosystems locally; however, she added, the climate of the Pleistocene was likely to be more significant in determining the landscape. “It was too cold and dry for trees and shrubs to grow, so you had grasses and different kinds of herbs covering the landscape,” she explained.
Today’s climate is warmer and wetter, so the ecosystem might have a problem with large herbivores. “You have to change the landscape for them and create pastures,” Edwards stated.
However, altering the landscape may cause unintended effects. Thawing Permafrost means increasing water levels within the soil, which trees and shrubs soak up. “If you got rid of all the shrubs, everything would get waterlogged,” Edwards explained, adding that this stagnant water may help thaw and increase soil carbon loss.
But introducing these animals into an area like the Russian Arctic could be “an exciting idea,” Edwards stated. “There’s a window for reintroducing some of the big, lost animals of the Pleistocene.”