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Wrangel Island: Russian Refuge

By Hampton Sides
May 13, 2013; 9:35 AM ET

All content for this article courtesy of the May issue of National Geographic. For full article and more photos, click here.

Credit: National Geographic

The following is an excerpt from the May issue of National Geographic magazine:

Wrangel Island was declared a zapovednik-a federally managed nature sanctuary-in 1976, and it remains one of Russia's coldest, remotest pieces of protected wilderness. The 2,900-square-mile island lying astride the 180th meridian just might be the Galapagos of the far north: Despite the severity of its climate, and in many ways because of it, Wrangel boasts an astonishing abundance of life. The island is the world's largest denning ground for polar bears-as many as 400 mothers have been known to land here in winter to raise their young. With climate change making the ice pack much less reliable, polar bears have often sought summertime refuge on the island in recent years as well. Wrangel also supports the largest population of Pacific walruses, and the only snow goose nesting colony in Asia. It is home to snowy owls, muskoxen, arctic foxes, and reindeer as well as massive populations of lemmings and seabirds. And yet, in merciful contrast to the boggy Siberian mainland, there are no mosquitoes.

The Artful Dodgers of Wrangel Island, arctic foxes steal as many as 40 snow goose eggs a day and cache them for their pups. © Sergey Gorshkov/National Geographic

Muskoxen-more akin to goats and sheep than to oxen-were introduced to Wrangel Island in 1975 and now number about 800. Increasingly, they cluster in tight groups to fend off a newly returned predator: wolves. © Sergey Gorshkov/National Geographic

Wrangel's sprawling gravel spits are home to large haul-outs of Pacific walruses, especially since climate change has made their preferred habitat-the ice pack-ever more tenuous. A healthy adult like this big female usually holds its own in a fight with a polar bear. © Sergey Gorshkov/National Geographic

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