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Natural System of Wrangel Island Reserve

Cultural criteria: ix, x
Year of inclusion in the List of World Heritage: 2004

The area of the Wrangel Island is the northernmost of all the World Heritage natural sites – it is situated approximately 500 km to the north of the Arctic Circle, in latitude 71 degrees North.

The site includes: the Wrangel Island (7.6 thousand sq. km) and the Gerald Island (11 sq. km), situated 70 km eastward. These are also adjoining water areas of the East Siberian and Chukchi Seas – within a radius of 12 nautical miles from each island. The total area of the World Heritage site (as well as that of the reserve) is 2,225,650 ha, including 1,430,000 ha of the offshore zone.

The Wrangel Island is situated at the junction of the Western and Eastern Hemispheres (i.e. straight at the 180th meridian), it is separated from the continent by the wide and shallow Long Strait. The climate of the island is very severe (up to -30 degrees and lower), the relief is mountainous (the maximal mark is the Sovetskaya Mountain, 1,096 m). Here predominate various kinds of barren-grounds tundras (sedge-moss, grass-lichen, fruticulose-forb), but relict tundra-steppe assemblages with a large variety of flowering plants are of particular interest. Shallow lakes and bogs, osiery are often found, in the mountains there are small glaciers and stony placers. Low-lying shores are divided by lagoons, separated from the sea by tongues of sand.

The site’s global value shows up in the two following aspects.

Firstly, it represents an outstanding example of transformational growth of various arctic natural complexes - mountain, plain and coastal.

Indeed, the Wrangel Island is a pronounced autonomous ecosystem that had developed in complete isolation for the latest 50 thousand years, i.e. starting from the time when the island began to separate from the continental land, whose part it had been before. It is noteworthy that the island ecosystem’s evolution was not interrupted even by the Quaternary glaciation (it showed up here to a relatively little degree), and this distinguishes this region in essence from other territories in the Arctic, covered at the time by massive ice columns. Availability of relict species of the pleistocene epoch, as well as quite a number of endemics (in all about 40 endemic species and subspecies of plants, insects, birds and mammals), the variety and mosaic of the vegetable cover, mixing of typical arctic and relatively south (American and Asian) species of animals and plants, all that is evidence of rich history of the island natural complex.

Evolutionary processes still last. They show themselves, particularly, in unusually high density and distinctive features of local lemmings’ behaviour (as compared with continental populations of this rodent); in caribous’ and musk-oxen’s physical adaptation to island conditions (island deers differ from continental ones by big dimensions); in the specificity of local population of blue fox (island individuals, as compared with continental ones, have smaller dimensions of skulls, and their number fluctuations here are not so dramatic).

Secondly, the territory has the biodiversity exceptional for the Arctic (which especially relates to plants and birds), and in addition – quite a number of species that are found here, are declared rare and endangered, and not only at national level at that but also at global one .

Thus, to date over 400 species and forms of vascular plants were registered on the island – more than on any other arctic island; it also exceeds twice the similar indicator for other tundra areas of the Arctic zone, having comparable dimensions. As of birds, in breeding sites in the area of the Wrangel Island over 50 species were registered; in all in the modern list of the reserve’s avifauna, inclusive of local birds and birds of passage, there are about 170 birds species.

In the area of the Wrangel Island the following was fixed:

  • the biggest in the whole Arctic (and in the world) concentration of generic couches of polar bear (the Wrangel and Gerald Islands are the main “maternity hospital” of polar bear, which conditions in many instances the existence of this biological species enlisted in the International Red Book and the Red Book of Russia);
  • coastal walrus rookeries, ones of the biggest in the Arctic (especially in the area of the Blossom Cape, in south-west of the Wrangel Island, where one can see at the same time many thousands of animals);
  • the biggest and the most stable in Eurasia breeding colony of snow goose (which against the background of its disappearance from many other regions seems to be very important);
  • the largest in the Eastern Arctic seabird colonies (gull-terricks, guillemots, pelagic cormorant, thick-billed guillemots, glaucous gulls etc.);

Beginning from the 1940s domestic caribous have been taken to the Wrangel Island, and by now they have almost completely grown wild; and in the 1970s the rarest dweller of the Arctic - musk-ox is taken here, whose number at the present time exceeds 800 individuals.

The water area adjoining to the islands is a place of fattening of gray whale (it migrates here on the part of California, from the Mexican El Vizcaíno Biosphere Reserve); other cetacean are found here too - Greenland right whale, humpback and finwhale, as well as killer whale and white whale. Apart from sea cows, other Pinnipedia inhabit here too – ringed seal, bearded seal, sea calf, banded seal.

The Wrangel Island, known already since the middle of the XVII century, was subsequently called in honor of the known Russian navigator F.P.Wrangel, who explored this island in the 1820s. The Gerald Island was discovered in 1849 by English naval mariner G.Kellette and called so in honor of his ship. Since 1926 a polar station has been functioning on the Wrangel Island, since 1976 this is a natural reserve. Its modern attendance is about 200 tourists a year.