April 20th, 2018
An artist's impression of an Ice Age ecosystem – similar to the one that Pleistocene Park is trying to recreate(Credit: Mauricio Antón/CC BY 2.5) VIEW GALLERY - 13 IMAGES
A real-world Jurassic Park is never going to happen, but shooting for a more recent prehistoric era might be more achievable. The Pleistocene Park project is aiming to rebuild a lost Ice Age ecosystem in Siberia, and its directors, the father-and-son team of Sergey and Nikita Zimov, say it could help slow the effects of climate change. Now, the initiative is running a crowdfunding campaign to help transport a new herd of animals to the park.
The project's roots can be traced back to 1988, when Sergey Zimov first began grazing Yakutian horses – a large, stout breed that's particularly well adapted to the bitter cold. In 1996, Pleistocene Park kicked off in earnest, with the long-term goal of increasing the density of animals living in Siberia to return the land to a state it hasn't seen in 10,000 years.
"The park was unavoidable for me really," Nikita Zimov, director of Pleistocene Park, tells New Atlas. "My dad started the first rewilding experiments when I was five, and Pleistocene Park officially started when I was 13. I lived here by the park for most of my life, except for high school and university from 14 to 20. My dad proposed for me to come back to the Station after university. I agreed. First years I was mostly doing what my dad told me, but I slowly took over most work on the Research Station and the Pleistocene Park. In the last few years I am fully in charge of those both."
The mammoth steppe
Today, Siberia has relatively low biodiversity, but that wasn't always the case. During the last Ice Age, the region was covered with a biome known as the "mammoth steppe," a grassy landscape densely populated by – as the name suggests – woolly mammoths, as well as species of bison, horse, reindeer, and musk ox. These creatures lived in symbiosis with the fast-growing grasses, and the ecosystem was so successful that it managed to spread over much of Europe, Russia, northern Asia and Canada.
"Before that most plants on the planet preferred to protect themselves from eating," Zimov explains. "Most resources they spent on poisons, spikes, height etc. Grasses took a different strategy – they put all efforts into fast growth, without spending anything on protection from eating or fighting the enemy. They went to symbiosis with animals. They feed animals, and those animals destroyed the enemies of grass – mosses, shrubs, trees. Those ecosystems appeared to be so successful that 15 to 20 thousand years ago, most of the planet was occupied by those ecosystems."
But around 12,000 years ago, the mammoth steppe all but vanished from the planet, and two familiar culprits have been blamed for that – climate change and human activity. The hypothesis goes that as the planet grew warmer in a natural event, humans ventured farther north. On finding such a bounty of animals, our ancestors did what they did best and hunted them. The reduced animal populations could no longer maintain the ecosystem, and the mammoth steppe quickly unraveled.
The central goal of Pleistocene Park is to bring that ancient ecosystem back to Siberia, creating what the Zimovs call a "Northern Serengeti." That means restoring the populations of those animals. Some, like reindeer, moose and Yakutian horses, still live in the region and can be easily rehomed in the park. Other species, like bison and muskoxen, have gone extinct locally and would need to be reintroduced from other parts of the world.
Currently, the park is home to over 90 animals, including Yakutian horses, reindeer, muskoxen, yaks, sheep, moose, bears and one lonely wisent. This may not be the exact collection of critters from the Ice Age, but it should fill most of the same ecological niches – yaks and sheep, for instance, were never native to the area but have similar grazing behaviors.
"For our arctic mammoth steppe, we know that on each square kilometer was one mammoth, five bison, eight horses and 15 reindeer," says Zimov. "In other steppe ecosystems animals were slightly different, but 'professions' stayed the same – there must have been elephant, cow, horse, goat/sheep/deer, wolf, big cat."
Back from the dead
But there's a huge, mammoth-shaped hole in this resettlement plan. Woolly mammoths have been extinct for thousands of years, and modern elephants are far from equipped to handle the intense Siberian winters. But with a little genetic help, their ecological role may one day be filled again.
As part of the Revive & Restore initiative, geneticist George Church is leading the Harvard Woolly Mammoth Revival project. This would be done by comparing the genomes of the mammoth and its closest living cousin, the Asian elephant, and editing the genes of the latter to be more like the former. The end result wouldn't be a true woolly mammoth, but if done right the new elephant hybrid could tolerate the cold and help plug up the mammoth's ecological vacuum.
Of course, that's the most ambitious piece of the puzzle, so don't expect to be able to see a real-life mammoth any time soon. Although Zimov has agreed to house any eventual revived mammoths at Pleistocene Park, for now they're focusing on the more achievable goals of rehoming animals that haven't been extinct for 4,000 years.
Pleistocene Park isn't just collecting these animals for fun – the team says that restoring the mammoth steppe ecosystem in Siberia can help slow the effects of climate change. Hundreds of gigatons of carbon is currently locked away in the Siberian permafrost, but with the planet steadily warming it's beginning to thaw out, releasing increasing amounts of carbon dioxide and methane to the atmosphere.
According to the Pleistocene Park team, herds of animals can offset the problem in a number of ways. For one, their hard hooves will trample the snow, compacting it down and keeping the permafrost colder than loose snow would. The animals would also remove vegetation like shrubs, trees and moss, and with a little help from some natural fertilizer the fast-growing grasses would once again take over, which can sequester carbon in their roots.
Another benefit to more snow cover and less vegetation is what's known as the albedo effect – essentially, snowy steppes are brighter than forests so they reflect more sunlight, rather than absorb its heat. Admittedly, the modest size of Pleistocene Park – about 20 sq km (7.7 sq mi) – won't be enough to counter the entire Earth's emissions, but it should serve as a good proof of concept. To that end, the park has equipment in place to monitor the energy balance of the land, determining the ratio of energy emission to absorption.
To achieve all of this, the team is currently seeking funding through Indiegogo to import a herd of bison, one of the key players in Zimov's vision for the park, from North America.
"Bison was the long-time dream of my dad, and for good reason," says Zimov. "Even though the ecosystem was called the mammoth steppe, bison was the dominant species there and it played the main role in the promotion of steppes. So we need this animal."
"Originally our plan was to find bison within Russia, but we quickly learned that there are no good options," he continues. "So we moved our focus on getting bison from abroad. After a few months of searching we found a herd owned by a Native American tribe near Fairbanks, Alaska."
The team has already purchased 12 one year-old animals from the tribe, had their health tested and had them cleared by the Russian government for entry. Now, the last remaining hurdle is actually getting them to the park.
"Originally I was even thinking about buying an old, very old ship and just navigate it to Cherskiy through the Bering Strait," says Zimov. "But we quickly understood that this idea is too crazy even for us. So we focused on the sane idea of chartering an airplane."
This idea turned out to be quite costly too, apparently bumping up against the US$130,000 mark. Some of that will come out of the team's pocket, as many of the expenses have over the years, but Zimov estimates that they'll need at least an extra $50,000.
To raise those funds, a campaign is currently in progress on Indiegogo. Pledging to Pleistocene Park will net backers the usual array of goodies, like notebooks, mugs and t-shirts, while those who throw higher donations to the project can be rewarded with animal figures carved from mammoth tusks found in the permafrost.
In future, Zimov plans to continue expanding the size of the park as well as the number and types of animals it houses. And who knows – maybe one day a modern mammoth will step back onto a modern mammoth steppe.